What you need to know about iCloud Private Relay



If you want to try entering the world of VPNs with a little dip, then iCloud Private Relay is your friend – but is it a real VPN service? The devil is in the details.

What you need to know about iCloud Private Relay

In 2021, Apple released a new feature for its iCloud+ subscription plan, which left some people wondering why Apple would offer such a service. We are talking about Apple iCloud Private Relaya kind of) VPN it’s not really a VPN at all. It is complicated.

What is Private Relay and how it works

iCloud Private Relay is an additional service offered in the iCloud+ subscription plan. The way it works is that it essentially hides your IP address and browsing activity from Safari by routing it through two relay servers, one operated by Apple and the other managed by a third-party provider.

This way, When Private Relay is enabled, all your browsing activity and data in Safari is routed over two internet hops. First, your data is encrypted, after which it is sent to Apple, so your Internet Service Provider (ISP) cannot see any of your web browsing activities. Then, at Apple’s proxy server, the Domain Name System (DNS) query (your request to access a website) and the IP address of your iPhone, iPad or Mac are separated. Your IP address is recorded by Apple, while your DNS query is transmitted, encrypted, to one of Apple’s partners who has the decryption key, along with a fake IP address based on your approximate location.

Sounds like a VPN, right? Routing internet traffic through another server, hiding your IP address and location… but it’s not really a VPN for many reasons.

Why is Private Relay not a VPN?

1. Private Relay is a service only for Apple devices. If you have an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, after subscribing to iCloud+, you can find the toggle to enable Private Relay in your iCloud settings. So no, it is not available on Android or Windows.

2. It only works on Safari. While a VPN would route all your traffic through a variety of servers and locations, Private Relay is limited to traffic coming from Safari, Apple’s internet browser. This means that your in-app activity from Instagram, TikTok, or any other browser like Chrome is not hidden in the same way.

3. Private Relay does not fully protect your browsing habits. By accepting cookies you can still be tracked. Additionally, since server traffic is always inextricably linked to the proxy your traffic comes from, it can always be isolated and blocked by a smart IT administrator. So, unlike a traditional VPN, traffic is not technically obscured.

4. Only two hops to cover your traffic can be considered missing. A traditional VPN would route it through multiple hops, connecting you to a series of servers to run through your trail before connecting to a website.

5. You cannot choose your geolocation. One of the main advantages of a VPN is that it can hide your location and behave as if you are in another country where a specific VPN provider has a server. However, Private Relay will only give you two options: keep a general location or use only the country and time zone.

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So why use Private Relay?

The reason Private Relay is still a great service is that fundamentally it still allows for more private browsing and, more importantly, provides additional protection for your browsing habits (on Safari, of course). Coupled with an effective ad blocking Safari extension and non-acceptance of tracking cookies, it presents an interesting opportunity to adapt your browsing and data sharing habits.

Private relay works on iOS, iPadOS and MacOS under the same Apple ID with an iCloud+ subscription. NOW, it is not as robust or as useful as a VPNbut using Private Relay can be an interesting and reliable option.

iPhone or Android, you should always be aware of your digital footprint

As discussed in some of our blogs on various forms of online tracking (like browser fingerprint), there are many different ways to locate yourself online, and often not just for your own benefit.

Your personal data can be all over the internet, but fortunately, minimizing your presence doesn’t have to be an extremely daunting task. Here are some tips to help you without much effort:

  • Reject cookies – the simplest step (sometimes) is to refuse cookies used to collect data for advertisers. Thanks to the GDPR and other confidentiality rulesYou can often just click “dismiss all” in the short pop-ups that appear when you navigate to a website.
  • Use a VPN While they don’t completely cover your tracks (fingerprints can still collect data on the device), VPNs obfuscate your IP address, meaning it’s much harder to estimate your location.
  • Don’t share too much – Especially on social media, try not to share too much personally identifiable information. The more data there is about you online, the easier it is for scammers to target you.

In conclusion, whether you use Private Relay, a VPN, or turn to a more privacy-focused approach, having more control over your online data is a good thing. And every step you take toward total privacy can make your life more (cyber)secure.

Before you leave: Apple Pay and security: what you need to know

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