Tech Friend is our advice column covering cybersecurity, privacy, and everyday technology. Email your question to email@example.com. If you have questions about your ExpressVPN subscription or need troubleshooting help, please contact Support.
I was under the impression, until today, that even if I was signed in to my Google account while using ExpressVPN, my browsing activity, identity, etc., would be hidden from Google. Now, after reading an article, I discovered it isn’t.
If I sign out of/delete my Google account, how can I update apps downloaded from the Google Play store? My ExpressVPN app, for example, is updated via Google Play. I must have a Google account and be signed in to access Google Play. Is there any way around it? Thank you.
Submitted by: Kevin
After the publication of the previous Tech Friend article about VPN server hopping, we’ve received a number of follow-up questions like this one. So, let’s clear it up!
How does a VPN protect your privacy?
When you connect to a VPN, your internet traffic goes through an encrypted tunnel that third parties cannot see into—including your internet service provider, hackers, and government agencies. The primary ways a VPN protects your online privacy are:
- New IP address: When you connect to a VPN, you are given a different IP address, which websites see. This makes you more anonymous online, as your real IP address is kept private. It can also make you appear to be in a different location—just about anywhere in the world.
- Encryption: Through encryption, the data you transmit can only be seen by the intended recipient, such as someone you’re chatting with online or a website you’re using. Your online activity and personal information are protected from snoops and attackers trying to intercept your traffic.
If you want to understand in detail how VPNs work to keep you private, check out: What is a VPN?
While a VPN is an easy-to-use online privacy tool, it won’t stop users from making the choice to share their own information or tell a company who they are. For example, if you allow website cookies, a VPN will not be able to stop a site from using them. Similarly, a VPN is unable to stop websites from knowing who you are if you sign in with your username.
While a VPN adds a significant layer of security, it is important to know that no VPN service can guarantee 100% anonymity. This is partly because users still control what they reveal.
Does a VPN make you anonymous to Google?
A VPN can increase your anonymity—but you’ll lose any anonymity if you sign in to the service.
The owners of a website are able to know everything about their own website: what pages people look at, how long they spend reading each page, what links they click on, what they buy, how they arrived on the site, etc.
The key question is whether they know who is performing those actions on their website. Not knowing it’s you is how you stay private. This also means they don’t know what you’re interested in and can’t sell that info to an advertiser.
So if you are logged in to, say, a news site, or you use a social media app (for which being logged in is a requirement), those sites can see what you specifically are reading. However, if you browse sites or services without being logged in, it’s likely that they won’t know who you are, but they can still track your activity and build a profile on you based on your IP address and location.
If you look at these sites without being logged in and with a VPN turned on, they won’t know your real IP address or your location, giving you greater anonymity.
The same logic applies to Google. If you’re using Google search without being signed in to your Google account while being connected to a VPN, Google will likely not know who you are or where you are. To Google, they’ll only know that someone is searching about a topic and which search result they click into. Any information logged won’t be associated with your Google account, since you’re not signed in.
Now, consider this other scenario: You’re Googling while signed in to your Google account, but you are connected to a VPN. Google will still not know where you are because they’ll see the VPN’s IP address instead of your real IP address, but your actions using Google services will be logged and tied to you. (Google might still be able to guess where you are because it knows it’s you, and that’s a big clue.)
You can request a summary of the data Google has on you for a frightening view of how much the company tracks and logs.
Location and IP masking aren’t the only benefits of using a VPN. A VPN will protect your traffic from interception by attackers and snoops, keeping things just between you and the website (which is especially relevant if the site is unsecured). You’ll also be able to access blocked sites—including Google, which is censored in some countries.
Should you delete your Google account for privacy?
That’s really for you to decide, but it might be an extreme step. Most of our digital lives are very intertwined with Google, with many of us using Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Meet, and more. And as you’ve mentioned, you need a Google account to access services like the Play Store.
There are some other measures you can take before you consider deleting your Google account, though:
- Turn off and delete your Google activity. By going into your Google account settings, you can turn off History settings so that your online activity won’t be stored.
- Use a burner account. Create a new Google account with completely fake information so that it is harder for Google or third parties to know who you really are.
- Don’t sign in to everything. Many Google services don’t require you to sign in, such as YouTube and Chrome. Only sign in when you really need to.
If you do decide to delete your Google account, there are plenty of alternate services, including privacy-focused ones, that can replace your favorite Google services. These include browsers like Brave, search engines like DuckDuckGo, and email services like ProtonMail.
How to download Android apps without Google Play Store
If you use an Android phone and decide to sign out of or delete your Google account, you can still install and update apps using APKs. An APK, also known as Android Package Kit, allows you to download apps from outside of the Play Store by transferring or downloading APK files to your device.
It’s not as convenient as using the Play Store, but it’s one method of living a more private and anonymous digital life. It is entirely possible to use an Android phone with only apps installed as APKs.
When downloading APK files, be sure to download directly from the app developer and not from a third party to minimize security risks. Note that not all apps have publicly available APKs. Click here to download the ExpressVPN Android APK, but first you might want to get full instructions on enabling and installing APKs.
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