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What is iOS Private Relay and how does it compare to a VPN?

What is iOS Private Relay and how does it compare to a VPN?


iOS Private Relay is a promising feature to have at your disposal after the release of iOS 15. Without a doubt, its potential is enormous, and initial assumptions have rang party bells. Essentially, Private Relay is showing off its VPN-like capabilities to hide users’ browsing data.

However, this does not mean that iOS Private Relay offers an equivalent result to a VPN. Instead, the diluted results will help users maintain their privacy to an extent. Let’s get to know the main characteristics of Private Relay and why it is not the best alternative to VPN.

What exactly is iOS Private Relay?

iOS Private Relay is an iOS 15 feature that will come out all by fall 2021. It will allow users to browse privately through Safari installed on iPhone, iPad, and Mac devices. However, please note that you will need an iCloud + subscription on your Apple ID. Otherwise, iOS Private Relay will be absent.

By definition, iOS Private Relay is a service that aims to secure users from online tracking. Its main objectives are:

  • To reduce the amount of data that ends up being snatched by advertising companies and ISPs.
  • To ensure that Apple does not obtain information about your browsing data.
  • To ensure that independent operators do not determine that certain traffic is coming from your device.

iOS Private Relay news hit the stage during the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) on June 7. On the face of it, it supports the privacy drives and beliefs that thousands of VPN users have. Hence, it took no time for viewers to hook it up with VPN technology.

A private relay is similar to a VPN in its goal of encrypting traffic and masking IP addresses. However, it achieves obfuscation differently and, according to Apple representatives, more securely. Until more details come to the surface on iOS Private Relay, it’s hard to judge its overall performance.

Despite the honest confusion and expectation, even Apple agrees that Private Relay is not a VPN. While they share similarities, these two technologies are independent and valuable in contrasting scenarios.

How will iOS Private Relay work?

Apple introduced the functionality behind iOS Private Relay. For one, it will work exclusively on Safari. Thus, the new privacy enhancement may significantly enhance the use of popular Apple software.

In general, the primary advantage of a private relay is encryption. To activate it, you need to go to your iCloud settings and toggle on the special paging switch. The exact process applies to both Mac and iOS users. Thus, you will not have to download anything. Here’s how the feature works once you’ve enabled it:

  • Private Relay allocates two servers to handle your browser traffic.
  • The device makes a secure QUIC/HTTP3 connection from the Internet to the first server (maintained by Apple). It is responsible for removing your IP address and assigning you a new one. Please note that this server will not even see the website you are trying to access. That’s because this data is encrypted on your device.
  • Your traffic then arrives at another third-party server outside of Apple’s control. The second worker decrypts your request but has no idea who you are. It directs you to your chosen destination (website). It also gives you a new IP address close to the one you received during the first step.
  • With the new IP address, you can peruse the digital space without linking your activities to your real location.
  • Note that iOS Private Relay mainly encrypts browser and DNS related traffic, which means it is not a device level protection.

iOS Private Relay will not be available worldwide

The introduction of iOS Private Relay is a huge leap towards a more private digital tomorrow. While it’s a celebration for privacy-conscious groups, not everyone raises their glass toward this feature. Some countries, which usually engage in strict blanket censorship and censorship of the Internet, refuse to do so, Reuters reports.

The list of unwelcome countries for iOS Private Relay includes:

  • China
  • Belarus
  • Colombia
  • Kingdom Saudi Arabia
  • Egypt
  • South Africa
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uganda
  • Filipinos
  • Kazakhstan

In these areas, Private Relay would violate the regulatory provisions. Millions of users around the world have to follow strict rules regarding the digital content they can access. In general, their pool of digital opportunities is pretty shallow. Any kind of obfuscation of browser traffic is not acceptable in many areas that practice censorship.

However, companies tend to negotiate with more stringent regulations to retain their rights to provide services or products. And Apple isn’t the only one that downplays its features. A while ago, Google had plans to launch a dedicated search engine for Chinese internet users. However, the project disappeared without much hope of return.

Why is iOS Private Relay not a VPN?

iOS Private Relay is a premium feature that millions of Apple users will appreciate. However, treating it as a VPN is not accurate, and here’s why:

  • Does not achieve device level protection. iOS Private Relay only encrypts and protects Safari traffic and a small portion of traffic from apps. Some VPNs have browser extensions that only work on these browsing tools. However, proper applications protect your entire internet traffic.
  • IP addresses still identify nearby locations. With Private Relay, you cannot make drastic changes to your IP address. For example, a VPN allows you to make your new address point to a location in a country across the ocean. iOS Private Relay usually keeps your location in the same country, but the specific regions will differ.
  • Easier to detect and block. The VPN is trying to disguise its traffic as normal. However, Private Relay will not equip the usual VPN obfuscation. Thus, networks of schools or companies can quickly identify encrypted traffic. Apple even provided instructions on how to grant permissions to this traffic. It also explained how to block private relay proxy server.
  • Don’t lift geographic restrictions. Many VPN users choose this solution to access services that are not available otherwise. For example, when traveling abroad, a VPN is a lifesaver to watch matches or shows shown in your country. iOS Private Relay will not bring such privileges. Don’t hide your public area or city from ISPs and authorities. Thus, it will not help activists or human rights defenders bypass the restrictions of the Internet.

Final notes

iOS Private Relay will not live up to your expectations if you see it as a VPN alternative. However, it is a valuable feature for iCloud subscribers who want to protect their traffic.

Of course, Safari only feature may seem a bit cramped, especially for those who need protection for other activities. Moreover, keep in mind that Private Relay will not help in unblocking unavailable content on your site.

Overall, the addition of iOS Private Relay sets the tone for Apple’s competitors. Similar features may arrive in other browsers as well, in an effort to gain similar traction.

If you are concerned about using both a VPN and iOS Private Relay, get rid of these concerns. Apple claims that the feature will ignore your VPN traffic. Hence, you can enable Private Relay along with your traditional VPN. The more guardians that secure your internet traffic, the better!

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