iCloud Private Relay's Problems Stem From a Lack of Clarity

Communication is important

Key Takeaways

  • It seemed as though T-Mobile was intentionally blocking Private Relay for some users, even if they weren’t using content filtering/parental controls.
  • It was later believed that a bug in iOS 15.2 was causing the problem, but it had more to do with physically moving out of a network’s range or visiting incompatible websites.
  • Ultimately, it was a matter of Private Relay turning off when the network couldn’t support it, and the subsequent error message not being clear enough.
Businessman sitting at office desk with his head in his hand

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Despite initial impressions and some corporate finger-pointing, iCloud's Private Relay issues aren't caused by carrier shenanigans or an iOS 15.2 bug.

Private Relay is a special privacy protection option for iCloud+ subscribers that hides your IP address and makes it more difficult for companies, advertisers, and bad actors to learn your physical location or track your browsing habits.

Things started to get muddled recently when some T-Mobile users noticed that Private Relay wasn't working. In addition, they were also receiving an error message implying that the problem was being caused by their carrier and not Private Relay or their iCloud account. To many, this made it look like T-Mobile might have been blocking Private Relay functionality, but the carrier had nothing to do with it.

"Your cellular plan doesn't support iCloud Private Relay," the message stated. "With Private Relay turned off, this network can monitor your internet activity, and your IP address is not hidden from known trackers or websites."

Finger Pointing

Initially, T-Mobile insisted it wasn’t blocking Private Relay for most of its users. According to the carrier, content filtering features like parental controls would be the only factor in limiting Private Relay for its customers. An understandable issue as content filtering is intended to track the user’s activity, which Private Relay is designed to mask or block.

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In fact, when Lifewire and many other websites reached out to T-Mobile, it stated that the problem was on Apple's end. More specifically, T-Mobile noted that the problem was with iOS 15.2.

"Overnight our team identified that in the 15.2 iOS release, some device settings default to the feature being toggled off," T-Mobile told Lifewire in an email. "We have shared this with Apple. This is not specific to T-Mobile. Again though, we have not broadly blocked iCloud Private Relay."

This, however, was later proven to be incorrect as Apple explained that iOS 15.2 didn't change anything that would have affected Private Relay in that manner. T-Mobile also revised its statement, explaining that the error message is likely caused by the feature accidentally being toggled off.

What’s Really Happening

As with most things in life, it comes down to location. And also the fact that Private Relay is still in beta, so it’s likely to run into the occasional hiccup. But the problem, essentially, is what works in one spot may not work in another. Not all networks or websites support Private Relay at the moment, and if you connect to a different network or navigate to an unsupported site, then it might have to be disabled.

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Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

According to Private Relay's support page, "... if you travel somewhere Private Relay isn't available, it will automatically turn off and will turn on again when you re-enter a country or region that supports it."

It was never T-Mobile's fault that Private Relay wasn't working. But why did the error message imply that it was? Poor word choice and a lack of clarity seem to be the main reason, as the beta for iOS 15.3 is already sporting a slightly more detailed error message.

"Private Relay is turned off for your cellular plan," the new message states. "Private Relay is either not supported by your cellular plan or has been turned off in Cellular Settings. With Private Relay turned off, this network can monitor your internet activity, and your IP address is not hidden from known trackers or websites."

The new message is only active in the iOS 15.3 beta, however, meaning anyone still using iOS 15.2 or waiting for the public release of iOS 15.3 will still see the older message. But rest assured, despite what the message might say, your inability is most likely not being hampered by your carrier. If it appears as though Private Relay has been mistakenly toggled off, you can toggle it back on in your iCloud settings menu. Crisis averted.

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