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What is Apple’s private relay and is a VPN better?

An address bar of a browser loading a website, as seen in Apple's WWDC 2021 keynote.

“Private Relay” is a new VPN-like service slated for iOS 1

5, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monteray in Fall 2021. At WWDC 2021, Apple announced Private Relay among a few other privacy-focused services. These will be included in iCloud’s paid plans, which will be renamed to iCloud+.

What does private relay do?

At the time of the announcement, Apple went into a few details about how Private Relay will work. First, it looks like it will be exclusive to the Safari browser on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. When enabled, it encrypts all data that leaves your device, including the address of all the sites you want to visit. It then sends your data through two so-called “relays”. The first will assign you a random IP address in your area and the second will decrypt the site name and send you there.

By using two servers in this way, Apple claims it will protect your identity “because no entity can identify both who a user is and what sites they visit.” The whole proposal sounds enticing and seems like a good way to strengthen the privacy of Apple customers, at least for those who have already signed up for iCloud’s paid plans.

Is Private Relay a VPN?

Of course, the first question on our minds was whether Private Relay is a VPN or not. according to The edge, Apple denies it is a VPN. That said, it sounds like it has some of the functionality of a virtual private network, like how it assigns you a new IP address, but there are also some key differences.

One of the most important is that Private Relay uses two relays instead of a VPN’s single server. This means Apple neatly sidesteps a VPN’s biggest Achilles heel: the possibility of a VPN provider keeping logs, which is a privacy issue when using VPNs.

Basically, when you connect to a website, your internet service provider (ISP) keeps a record of that connection. When you use a VPN, the ISP can no longer see the sites you visit, but the VPN can. This is a big problem and one of the reasons why you should always make sure you do business with a no-log VPN.

By using two servers, Apple makes this problem out of the question: presumably, while Apple knows what the first server is doing, it can’t know what the second is doing because everything is encrypted. It’s a pretty elegant solution overall. In fact, it is reminiscent of the Tor, which is also designed for anonymity.

RELATED: Anonymous browsing with Tor

Is private relay like Tor?

Private Relay’s system of routing traffic through more than one point is very similar to how Tor routes traffic. Tor users direct their traffic to the website they want to visit by hopping through so-called nodes, usually small servers run by volunteers, maybe even on their home PC. The difference with Apple Relay – besides calling nodes “relays” – is that there are only two (Tor networks can jump dozens of times in some cases).

By keeping the hop count to two and using its own servers—that’s an assumption on our part, but knowing Apple a reasonable one—Apple solves Tor’s biggest problem, that of speed. Even a well-established Tor network will slow down connection speeds considerably, but Private Relay seems to get around that. We won’t know for sure until we research it ourselves.

What does a private relay race look like?

No one can do anything but make assumptions about Private Relay until we actually get our hands on iCloud+. At the time of writing, shortly after WWDC in June 2021, it’s unclear when exactly it will roll out in beta, although it should be part of iOS 15 in the fall of 2021.

When it is rolled out, it will not be available in a number of countries due to ‘regulatory reasons’. These include two countries where VPNs are illegal, China and Belarus, as well as other places, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan, where the government likes to keep an eye on things.

As it stands, Private Relay will be a Tor-like system that will likely be a lot faster than the real Tor thanks to a low hop count and the use of, most likely, optimized servers. However, unlike Tor or a VPN, users cannot select a server outside their region, or even a server of their choice in their own region. In other words, you can’t use Private Relay to seem like you’re browsing from a different region or specific area, like you can with a VPN.

It also looks like Private Relay will be a Safari exclusive. Whether the app traffic is protected is unclear. If it can only be used through Safari, only while browsing, it is less useful, especially on mobile devices where most of the activity is done through apps.

Can Private Relay Replace a VPN?

Overall, it looks like iCloud+ will be a nice set of extra security and privacy features on top of the already reasonably priced iCloud storage plans, but we doubt Private Relay will replace VPNs and Tor.

While it is clearly secure and private, it removes the choices users have about how they use it. If Apple made it possible to choose regions and also let it play nicely with other browsers and apps, it would be a force to be reckoned with.

For now, VPNs are still more powerful, flexible tools. But for people who don’t use VPN, Private Relay makes some VPN-style privacy features even more accessible. That’s great news.

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