Apple’s private relay disrupts telecommunications around the world

When Apple pushed iOS 15 released to over a billion devices in September, the software update included the company’s first VPN-like feature, iCloud Private Relay. The subscription-only privacy tool makes it harder for anyone to spy on what you do online, by routing your device’s traffic through multiple servers. But the tool has been rejected by mobile operators in Europe and, more recently, by T-Mobile in the United States.

As Private Relay has rolled out over the past few months, dozens of people have started to complain that their mobile operators appear to be restricting access to it. For many, it’s not possible to activate the option if your plan includes content filtering, such as parental controls. Meanwhile, in Europe, mobile operators Vodafone, Telefonica, Orange and T-Mobile have complained about the operation of Private Relay. In August 2021, according to a report by Telegraph, companies complained that the feature would cut off their access to network metadata and information, and suggested regulators ban it.

“Private Relay will prevent others from innovating and competing in downstream digital markets and could negatively impact the ability of operators to effectively manage telecommunications networks,” company bosses wrote in a letter to EU lawmakers . However, Apple says Private Relay does not prevent companies from providing customers with fast internet connections, and security experts say there is little evidence showing that Private Relay will cause problems for network operators.

Apple’s Private Relay isn’t a VPN, which operators freely allow, but it does have some similarities. The option, which is still in beta and only available to people who pay for iCloud +, aims to prevent network providers and websites you visit from seeing your IP address and DNS records. This makes it harder for businesses to create profiles about you that include your interests and location, in theory helping to reduce the ways you are targeted online.

To do this, Private Relay routes your web traffic through two relays, called nodes, when it leaves your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Your traffic goes from Safari to the first relay, known as the “ingress proxy,” which is owned by Apple. There are several different entry proxies in the world, and they are based in multiple locations, says Apple in a white paper. This first relay is able to see your IP address and the Wi-Fi or mobile network to which you are connected. However, Apple is unable to see the name of the website you are trying to visit.

The second relay through which your web traffic passes, known as the “egress proxy,” belongs to a third-party partner rather than Apple itself. While it can see the name of the website you’re visiting, it doesn’t know the IP address you’re browsing from. It instead assigns you another IP address that is close to where you live or in the same country, depending on your Private Relay settings.

The result is that no relay knows both your IP address and the details of what you are watching online, whereas a typical VPN provider will. process all your data. Unlike a VPN, Apple’s system does not allow you to change the geographic location of your device to avoid regional blocks on content from Netflix and the like.

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