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iCloud + Private Relay Explained: Don’t Call It a VPN

iCloud + Private Relay Explained: Don’t Call It a VPN


If you downloaded iOS 15, you might have noticed something different in your iCloud account. Apple is upgrading all to push iCloud accounts into something you call iCloud +. It includes many interesting new features in addition to the existing iCloud storage, sync, and cloud features, but perhaps the most interesting thing is something Apple calls iCloud Private Relay. At first, it looks like a Virtual Private Network (VPN): Your web browsing traffic is encrypted and sent through a relay to mask your exact location, IP address, or the contents of your browsing traffic.

However, it is not a VPN. not exactly. There are important differences that we will describe here. But iCloud Private Relay might suffice for most people, as it gives the most obvious benefits of a VPN to millions of users who would never consider signing up for one. Here’s what Private Relay is, how it works, and how it differs from a traditional VPN.

Update 11/17/21: Security researchers have indicated that Private Relay does not work on the Apple Watch yet. The Mail app and the links opened on your Apple Watch will use your real IP address.

How do you turn on iCloud Private Relay?

iCloud Private Relay is a free iOS 15 upgrade for anyone who pays for iCloud storage either separately or as part of an Apple One package. To turn it on, head over to the Settings app, then tap your Apple ID name at the top. then press iCloud And Private Relay (Beta) And flip the green toggle button to turn it on. You can also choose between two IP address locations: public (so websites can provide local content in Safari) or the broader country and timezone for more anonymity.


What is iCloud Private Relay?

When Private Relay is enabled, all of your browsing activity in Safari will be routed through “two hops,” or online relays. Your data is encrypted and then sent to Apple, so your ISP can’t see any of your web browsing requests. Once you reach an Apple proxy server, the DNS request (the thing that a domain name like “” points to a specific server’s IP address) and the IP address of your iPhone, iPad, or Mac are separated. Apple keeps your IP address, while your DNS request is passed, and encrypted, to a “trusted partner” who has the decryption key, along with a fake intermediate IP address based on your approximate location. Apple did not name its partners, but some web investigators found that they were major Internet majors such as Akami, Cloudfare and Fastly.

An apple

This means that Apple knows your IP address but not the name of the sites you visit, and the trusted partner knows the site you are visiting and not your IP address (and therefore does not know who you are or where you are). Neither side can put together a complete picture of both Who are you And Where are you going.

The website you visit usually gets your IP address and DNS request, so it can easily create a very detailed profile of exactly who you are, where you are, and where you surf the Internet. Combine that with a few cookies, even seemingly harmless ones, and it’s very easy to identify, track, track and sell your entire online activity to advertisers (and others).

Apple’s dual proxy system makes it very difficult for any company to create a profile for your web activity.

An apple

What iCloud Private Relay does is make the websites you visit completely unaware of this information, so the sites can’t create profiles for your activity.

The IP addresses that Apple uses instead of your real address are still an approximation of your general area; It’s not enough to identify you personally, but it will allow sites that use your IP address to provide local news, weather, sports or other information to keep working well. There is an option to use a wider IP address, but it may make some of these sites work incorrectly.

Note that Apple doesn’t let you choose an IP address or even a region, and it won’t make it look like you’re coming from a completely different place. In other words, if you want to use it to access geo-locked content in Netflix or other online services, you won’t be out of luck.

How is iCloud Private Relay different from a VPN?

As far as this Private Relay feature is, it is definitely not a VPN. It will do a great job at preventing profiling of your web activity based on your basic contact data. But it has a lot of shortcomings compared to a real VPN. Some of these include:

  • It only works with Safari, not any of the other apps or web browsers you use. Technically it will use some other DNS information and a small subset of web traffic related to the app, but it’s best to think of it as something that’s only Safari.
  • It is easily recognized as a “proxy server”, which many large networks such as those in schools or companies will not work with. Most good VPNs disguise themselves to look like regular non-proxy traffic.
  • As mentioned, the area you are connected from cannot be hidden, only your own specific IP location, so you cannot access blocked content from your region or experience websites as if you were connecting from another country.

If all you really want to do is prevent websites from creating a profile for you and selling it to advertisers and data brokers, then using iCloud Private Relay on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac is a great option. It’s fast and easy, and if you’re already paying for any amount of iCloud storage, you’ll get it for free.

You should know that as of iOS 15.1 and watchOS 8.1, iCloud Private Relay and Mail Privacy Protection does not work on Apple Watch. If you use the Mail app on your Apple Watch or open a web link (for example, sent to you via Messages), the watch will use your real IP address.

If you want true privacy and security for everything If you do online, or want to access content that is available in countries other than your own, you will still need a VPN. Fortunately, we have some VPN recommendations for you.

I have written professionally about technology throughout my adult career – more than 20 years. I like to discover how complex technology works and explain it in a way that anyone can understand.

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