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

Anton P. | August 13, 2021

iOS Private Relay is a promising feature to be at your disposal after the iOS 15 release. Without a doubt, its potential is phenomenal, and the initial assumptions tolled the celebration bells. Essentially, Private Relay parades its VPN-like capabilities of obscuring users’ browsing data. 

However, it does not mean that iOS Private Relay delivers an outcome equivalent to a VPN. Instead, the toned-down results will help users preserve their privacy to a degree. Let’s figure out the main characteristics of Private Relay and why it is not the topmost VPN alternative. 

What is iOS Private Relay exactly? 

iOS Private Relay is an iOS 15 feature to emerge by the fall of 2021 fully. It will let users browse privately through Safari installed on iPhones, iPads, and Macs. However, please note that you will need to have an iCloud+ subscription on your Apple ID. Otherwise, the iOS Private Relay will be absent. 

By definition, iOS Private Relay is a service aiming to secure users from tracking across the internet. Its main goals are: 

  • To limit the amount of data that ends up snatched by advertising companies and ISPs. 
  • To ensure that Apple does not get information on your browsing data. 
  • To guarantee that the independent operators would not identify that specific traffic comes from your device. 

The news of iOS Private Relay hit the stage during the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) on June 7. At face value, it supports privacy motivations and beliefs thousands of VPN users have. Hence, it took no time for viewers to relate it to the VPN technology

Private Relay does resemble a Virtual Private Network in its aim to encrypt traffic and mask IP addresses. However, it achieves obfuscation differently and, according to Apple representatives, more securely. Until more details reach the surface on iOS Private Relay, it is problematic to judge its overall performance. 

Despite the honest confusion and anticipation, 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 did introduce the functionality behind iOS Private Relay. For one, it will operate exclusively on Safari. Thus, the new privacy boost might significantly boost the usage of Apple’s iconic software. 

Overall, the underlying feature of Private Relay is encryption. To activate it, you need to navigate to your iCloud settings and toggle the Private Relay switch. The exact process applies to both Mac and iOS users. Thus, you won’t have to download anything. Here is how the feature will work once enabled: 

  • Private Relay dedicates two servers for handling 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 won’t even see the website you attempt to reach. It is because such data gets encrypted on your device. 
  • Your traffic then reaches another third-party server outside Apple’s control. The second operator decrypts your request but has no idea about your identity. It directs you to your selected destination (website). It also gives you a new IP address nearby to the one you received during the first hop. 
  • With the new IP address, you peruse the digital space without having your activities associated with your true location. 
  • Note that iOS Private Relay mainly encrypts browser and DNS-related traffic, meaning it is not device-wide protection. 

iOS Private Relay won’t be available worldwide 

The introduction of iOS Private Relay marks a massive leap towards a more private digital tomorrow. While it is a celebration for privacy-minded groups, not everyone raises their glass to this feature. Some countries, usually involved in censorship and overall strict internet control, reject it, Reuters reports.

The list of countries unwelcoming to the iOS Private Relay includes the following: 

  • China 
  • Belarus 
  • Colombia 
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Egypt 
  • South Africa 
  • Turkmenistan 
  • Uganda
  • The Philippines 
  • Kazakhstan 

In these regions, Private Relay would violate regulatory provisions. Millions of users worldwide must follow strict rules as to what digital content they can reach. Overall, their pool of digital opportunities is much shallower. Any type of browser traffic obfuscation is unacceptable in many regions exercising censorship. 

However, companies tend to negotiate with stricter regimes to retain their rights to supply services or products. And Apple is not the only one cutting down on its features. A while ago, Google had plans to release a search engine customized to Chinese netizens. However, the project disappeared without much hope of returning. 

Why is iOS Private Relay not a VPN? 

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

  • Does not achieve device-wide protection. iOS Private Relay only encrypts and protects the Safari traffic and a small portion of traffic from apps. Some VPNs do have browser extensions that work only on these browsing tools. However, proper apps shelter your entire internet traffic. 
  • IP addresses still pinpoint nearby locations. With Private Relay, you cannot make drastic changes to your IP address. For instance, a VPN allows you to make the new address point to a location in a country across the ocean. iOS Private Relay usually retains your location in the same country, but the exact areas will differ. 
  • Easier to detect and block. A VPN tries to camouflage its traffic as normal. However, Private Relay won’t equip the obfuscation customary to VPNs. Thus, school or corporate networks can quickly recognize the encrypted traffic. Apple has even provided guidelines on how to make permissions for this traffic. It also explained how to block the Private Relay proxy server.
  • Does not lift geo-restrictions. Many VPN users choose this solution for accessing otherwise unavailable services. For instance, when traveling abroad, a VPN is the savior for tuning in to see matches or shows offered in your country. iOS Private Relay won’t bring such perks. It does not hide your general region or city from internet service providers and authorities. Thus, it will also not help activists or human rights defenders bypass internet restrictions.

Final notes

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

Of course, the Safari-only feature might seem a little narrow, especially for those requiring protection for other activities. Furthermore, bear in mind that Private Relay won’t assist in unblocking content unavailable in your location.  

Overall, the addition of iOS Private Relay sets the tone for Apple’s competitors. Comparable features might arrive in other browsers as well, attempting to get similar traction. 

If you worry about using both a VPN and iOS Private Relay, shake off such concerns. Apple claims that the feature will ignore the traffic of your VPN. Thus, you can enable Private Relay alongside your traditional VPN. The more guardians secure your internet traffic, the better!

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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iOSAppleprivate browsingVPN

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