A great deal of hype surrounds the impending launch of Apple’s Private Relay, a browser-based encryption boost that is set to be offered as a “public beta” to iCloud+ subscribers this fall. Current iCloud subscribers will automatically be upgraded to iCloud+ at no charge.
Private Relay will automatically be downloaded to iPhones or other Apple iCloud-enabled devices and will become available on forthcoming iOS and MacOS devices.
While more is unknown than is known about Apple’s newest addition, many non-technical users of Apple products might breathe a collective sigh of relief that Apple seems to be doing everything they can to add greater privacy in a world that seems less than secure.
If Apple’s implementation of this new feature actually lives up to its lofty promises, then Private Relay will offer a high level of privacy, both on the provider side and on the user side.
Private Relay is designed to encrypt all information about the user, such as who you are, where you are, and what websites you visit. They’re planning to do such a thorough job of this that even Apple won’t know who you are. This is unlike traditional Virtual Private Network (VPN) providers, which typically have this information.
VPNs first became available for web users more than twenty years ago, and many savvy Internet browsers use them to hide their IP address. VPNs have long allowed people to ward off hackers, keep their identity totally private, and even watch Netflix movies in countries that have banned certain content.
Lately, companies have also gotten on the privacy bandwagon—especially post-pandemic, when many of their employees have been working remotely from home.
Private Relay, although not technically a VPN, seems to be Apple’s way of getting in on the trend toward greater privacy.
The real advantage of Private Relay is that it will have a very simple interface that is understandable enough for even a general, non-techie audience. Since it is built right into the operating system for iCloud+ subscribers, Apple customers will trust it to keep them safe and secure while browsing. Also, it may very well work better than a third-party VPN application used on Apple and may not slow down the speed of your connection like VPNs sometimes can. Last, it’s free for iCloud+ users.
From a strategic perspective, Private Relay, at least in its first iteration, won’t be totally effective for all users. First of all, this feature allows you to choose your general IP address or simply choose an IP address somewhere in your country and/or time zone. Because of this, Private Relay will not allow you to geo-hop, meaning the service still uses your approximate existing geographic location, making it more impossible to do things like stream Netflix content from a different country. Apple has a vested interest in working cooperatively with content providers and has no desire to estrange them by infringing on the regional blocking schemes already in place.
Also, since there is no change of region, and Apple will transfer the information about the user’s region to the website, advertisers will still be able to target a user based on their location.
Secondly, this feature will not be available in all countries. Apple has already announced that they will comply with local regulations and so will be unable to offer Private Relay in China, Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda, the Philippines, and Russia.
Third, even though Apple execs have been depicting Private Relay to be a plausible runner-up to commercial VPNs, it is not in fact a VPN and thus has diminished functionality.
For instance, this encryption boost will only perform the function of privacy and anonymity. Other functions are not clear, and we don’t yet know exactly how this interface will work. Because of this, users who want to rely on Private Relay as though it’s a true VPN might be opening themselves up to risk.
In addition, there will be almost no settings for users to choose from. That is, it will be almost impossible to adjust the specific condition of how Private Relay works for individual users and their needs. Time will tell what risks might occur from this initial set-up, and not all cases will be tested immediately and will need to be fixed gradually.
Fourth, Private Relay will only be available for Safari users, so those who use Chrome or Firefox will be unprotected. This means Private Relay is not a one-stop-shopping solution for privacy and does not encrypt data across all apps on your device. Many people might not realize this and think they are more fully protected than they actually are. In addition, this service is only available for those with iCloud subscriptions.
Yet another disadvantage of this encryption service is that Apple surely knows everything about its users. Since many users are worried about privacy and staying anonymous online, many commercial VPN providers solve this problem by not physically storing logs. If Apple does store information about its users, then what happens if the government asks for information about customers? Does Apple need to provide this data?
From my standpoint as the founder and CEO of a company that focuses on privacy, security, and safety, I believe that Apple’s Private Relay will not kill the VPN market, but it could affect some of the market players and will surely create more competition.
Although this feature can provide some anonymity for users, and should be easy enough to turn on and off, making you anonymous/not anonymous, it still will be unusable in countries where privacy is most at risk (like China). In such cases, VPNs will remain the most effective solution.
Also, since the service is so new, and a lot is unknown about how it will work, we can’t yet be sure about the level of anonymity promised to Apple’s customers. As such, the VPN providers still wear the pants in the privacy household.
Private Relay will not be a negative addition to Apple’s features and might prove helpful for those not particularly tech savvy. However, those who want fuller protection might want to combine this service with a traditional VPN.
Apple’s release of this built-in virtual private network might trigger some companies—like tech behemoth Cisco, for instance—to release a full security system. Other OS vendors could also think to get into the game, creating similar systems for themselves.
If other companies begin offering their versions of security services, then current VPN providers will face greater competition in the years ahead.
In general, however, Private Relay should not hurt the VPN industry that drastically. For those who truly need a VPN, the set of features offered by Apple’s new offering will not be enough. Also, there’s bound to be some overlap in emerging technologies. For instance, storing passwords for browsers did not hurt the market caps of top password management companies, even though almost all browsers have this option now.