What is iCloud Private Relay, and does it work like a VPN?

What is iCloud Private Relay, and does it work like a VPN?

April 10, 2024 privacy 0

Apple’s iCloud Private Relay is the company’s attempt to offer enhanced privacy and anonymity to its customers. The company claims Private Relay hides your identity and data from websites, your internet service provider, and bad actors like hackers. 

Sounds like a VPN, right? 

Well, not quite. Private Relay has some serious limitations, which we’ll get into below. If you’re concerned about your privacy while using Apple products, we suggest installing a cheap iOS VPN

Surfshark is the best budget option, while ExpressVPN offers the best experience. 

But for now, let’s dig into Private Relay and see how it works. 

Understanding iCloud Private Relay

iCloud Private Relay is a feature available with iCloud+ subscriptions on Apple devices. It’s designed to enhance your online privacy and security while using Safari and other Apple apps by concealing your IP address and encrypting your web browsing data. 

When activated, iCloud Private Relay funnels your internet traffic through two distinct relays before it reaches its destination on the web:

  • First Relay (managed by Apple): Processes your encrypted browsing request. While it can identify your original IP address, it strips away any personal identifying information (PII). You’re assigned a temporary, regional IP address.
  • Second Relay (operated by a third-party partner): Handles the decryption of the website’s address (excluding the content) and facilitates your connection to the site using the temporary IP address provided by the first relay. Importantly, this partner does not have access to your original IP address.

This dual-relay approach ensures that no single party, including Apple, can know your identity or browsing activity. 

However, it’s not as robust as a premium VPN, which sends your traffic through numerous relays and keeps everything within its private network (no relying on third parties). The best VPNs also use RAM-only servers that get automatically wiped regularly and follow strict no-logs policies. 

That’s just the start. 

How does iCloud Private Relay differ from a VPN?

While iCloud Private Relay and VPNs share some similarities, they offer distinct functionalities. 

Feature iCloud Private Relay VPN
Device Coverage Safari browser and Apple apps only All internet traffic on your device
IP Address Masking Regional Global
DNS Leak Protection Yes Yes
Bypass Geo-restrictions No Yes
Connection Speed Impact Minimal Minimal
Advanced privacy tools None Built-in ad blockers, malware detection, IP rotators, and much more
Cost Included with iCloud+ subscription Separate subscription

Let’s explore these differences in more detail:

1. Device coverage: iCloud Private Relay only encrypts traffic flowing to and from the Safari browser and some Apple apps. Any non-Apple app or internet traffic outside of Safari remains unprotected. Private Relay is only available on Apple products. 

A VPN encrypts all internet traffic on your device, regardless of the apps or browser you use, providing comprehensive protection for your online activities. Top VPNs allow simultaneous installation across many devices, including Android, Windows, smart TVs, and game consoles. 

2. IP address masking: iCloud Private Relay assigns a temporary IP address that reflects your general region but not your exact location. This can be helpful for basic privacy needs. 

VPNs offer a much higher degree of control over your IP address. You can choose a server location anywhere worldwide, making it appear like you’re browsing from that location. This allows you to bypass geo-restrictions on streaming services or websites limited by region.

3. DNS leak protection: Reputable VPNs, such as ExpressVPN, have servers to resolve DNS queries. This prevents third-party network intruders and ISPs from seeing which websites you’re visiting. 

iCloud Privacy Relay also keeps your DNS queries private. It encrypts queries sent through the access network and the first Apple-owned relay. The requests are only decrypted by the second relay, which doesn’t have your original IP address. DNS queries, therefore, cannot be tied to individual users.

4. Bypassing geo-restrictions: If you want to access content unavailable in your region, a VPN is the way to go. You can bypass geo-restrictions on streaming services or websites by connecting to a server in your desired location. iCloud Private Relay doesn’t allow bypassing geo-restrictions, so you’ll still be limited to content available in your region.

5. Connection speed impact: Apple claims that iCloud Private Relay has no noticeable impact on browsing speeds or performance. While some user reports suggest otherwise, the impact is minimal compared to a VPN. 

VPNs route users’ traffic through an additional server before it reaches the internet. This can sometimes cause slowdowns due to the extra distance traveled and the encryption process. However, for the best VPNs, the drop in speed is often negligible.

6. Cost: iCloud Private Relay is included with an iCloud+ subscription, making it a cost-effective option for existing subscribers. VPNs require separate subscriptions, with pricing varying depending on the provider and chosen features.

However, you can install your VPN on every other device you use, and it will offer many more features (like open access to Netflix). Also, plenty of cheap VPNs cost less than a coffee to subscribe to each month.   

If you’re not sure, compare prices between the best budget-friendly VPNs and an iCloud+ account. 

Setting up iCloud Private Relay

If you’re an iCloud+ subscriber and want to enhance your Safari browsing privacy, here’s how to set up iCloud Private Relay on your Apple devices:

On iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches (iOS 15 or later):

  1. Go to Settings.
  2. Tap on your name at the top.
  3. Select iCloud.
  4. Select Private Relay.

On Macs (macOS Monterey 12 or later):

  1. Click on the Apple icon in the top left corner of your screen.
  2. Select System Preferences.
  3. Click on Apple ID.
  4. Click on iCloud.
  5. Select Private Relay.

For macOS Ventura (13) or later:

  1. Click on the Apple icon in the top left corner of your screen.
  2. Select System Settings.
  3. Click on your name.
  4. Click on iCloud.
  5. Select Private Relay.

Have there been any security concerns with iCloud Private Relay?

Like any new technology, iCloud Private Relay has faced some initial security concerns.

In 2021, a vulnerability was discovered where WebRTC, a browser technology for real-time communication, could reveal a user’s true IP address even with Private Relay enabled. This was a significant concern as it undermined the core functionality of iCloud Private Relay – masking your IP address.

Apple addressed this issue with a software patch. This highlights the importance of keeping your Apple devices updated for optimal security, as you benefit from the latest security fixes and patches that address potential vulnerabilities.

Since 2021, no vulnerabilities, hacks, or scandals have been reported related to Private Relay. 

Should you use iCloud Private Relay?

Ultimately, iCloud Private Relay offers an added layer of security to Safari and other Apple apps, especially if you’re already subscribed to iCloud+. 

But, as we’ve pointed out, your protection will be limited. 

You’ll still be vulnerable whenever you use Google Chrome, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and any device not produced by Apple – which is a lot! And you won’t get access to geo-blocked content like international Netflix libraries. 

So, stick to a VPN if you want to take your security seriously or appreciate the open internet. 

These are our favorite VPNs for Apple devices:

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