iOS 15’s Private Relay Is Another Tool Against Creepy Snoopers

Trackers and websites can no longer figure out where you live

Key Takeaways

  • Private Relay stops websites from knowing your IP address.
  • You have to have a paid iCloud+ storage plan to use it.
  • iOS 15 brings many other privacy-protecting features.
Closeup of someone typing on a Mac laptop with a Mac computer in the background.

Glenn Carstens-Peters / Unsplash

Every time you connect to a web page, that page’s server also connects to you and knows your IP address. Apple’s new Private Relay feature is an elegant way to break that connection without breaking anything else. 

Every Apple OS update brings new privacy-protecting features, and iOS 15 is no exception. For example, there are new settings to block tracking pixels in emails; generate throwaway, anonymous email addresses; and enable Private Relay. It’s a way to hide your location and to block yet another way that bad actors can track you across the web. 

"[Private Relay] will become the first step towards cybersecurity for many users who wouldn’t have considered taking action otherwise," Daniel Markuson, a privacy expert with NordVPN, told Lifewire via email. "I’d say this will boost cybersecurity awareness in general, and this is a big win for the whole industry."

Location, Location, Location

Whenever you connect to the web, websites and trackers can pinpoint your physical location using your IP address. An IP address is a unique number that identifies any computer on the internet, including your home router. Because IP addresses rarely change, they are a great way to track a user and infer their actual physical location, often down to the individual building. 

Private Relay is a new service from Apple that breaks the connection between you and a tracker or a website that might want to track you. It is available only on iCloud+, which is the paid storage tier of iCloud, and it works like this:

A screenshot of the Private Relay explainer on iCloud.

Whenever you visit a website in Safari, Private Relay kicks in. It takes the URL of the website you want to visit and also your IP address. It then encrypts that URL and sends both to Apple’s servers. Then, those servers forward the encrypted URL to a "trusted partner," which unencrypts it and connects you to the site. 

The idea is that nobody has the complete picture. Apple knows who you are, but not where you are going. Likewise, the trusted partner knows what site you’re visiting, but not who you are. It’s a clever trick.

Apple’s Private Relay is not a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN is an encrypted tunnel through which all your data passes. The only data that passes through Private Relay is your IP address and the URL of the site you want to visit. All other data travels in the traditional way.

Private Relay works only in Safari, not in apps or third-party browsers, but also will redirect any DNS requests and any HTTP (non-HTTPS) traffic. 

With a VPN, you have to trust the vendor 100%. After all, it gets to see all your data pass through. With Private Relay, the "trusted provider" never knows who you are, so you only have to trust Apple. But because you are using Safari on a device made by Apple, running an operating system written by Apple, you’re kind of all-in on trusting Apple already. 

Great, but How Does it Help Me?

Whenever we use the internet, we leak all kinds of data. 

"A user can inadvertently give out personal information by logging on to their social media account, Netflix, Safari, or Google Chrome browser, providing personally identifiable information such as name, voiceprint or phone number to online services," Dr. Matthew Schneider of Dr. Data Privacy told Lifewire via email.

"[Private Relay] will become the first step towards cybersecurity for many users who wouldn’t have considered taking action otherwise."

And it doesn’t end there. Along with the concrete data that you give away, like your IP address (and therefore your location), sites can infer all kinds of things by studying your activity. 

"[Users disclose] indirect identifiers such as gender, age, or ethnicity to others, or providing forensic clues such as your writing style, computer screen dimensions, or browsing behavior to third parties," says Schneider. 

Because you can easily be tracked across sites, all this data can be added together to get a scarily complete picture of you and your internet activity.

Piece by piece, Apple is dismantling the mechanisms that allow this kind of privacy invasion. Private Relay is the latest, joining Ad Tracking Transparency, tracker blocking in Safari, and (new in iOS 15) App Activity reports, which tells you which connections apps have been making. And bit by bit, Apple is cementing its position as the platform of choice for people who don’t like their privacy to be invaded.

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