How Apple’s iCloud Private Relay Can Keep You Safe

If you pay for iCloud storage, then you automatically have access to the extra perks that Apple bundles together under the iCloud+ name—and one of those perks is the iCloud Private Relay service.

If you open the Settings app on your iPhone or iPad, tap your name at the top, and then choose iCloud, you should be able to access a Private Relay (Beta) toggle switch that you can turn on or off. It’s also under Apple ID and iCloud in System Preferences on macOS. However there’s not a huge amount of information alongside the switch telling you what it is and how it works.

That’s what we’re going to do here, with the help of new documentation that Apple has published about the ins and outs of iCloud Private Relay. By the time you’ve finished reading, you should know whether this is a feature you need.

Keeping Your Internet Activity Private

Enabling iCloud Private Relay on an iPhone.

Photograph: Apple via David Nield

As you’ll see from the accompanying blurb, when you switch the feature on, iCloud Private Relay “keeps your internet activity private”—and it does that in a number of ways. One way is by hiding your IP address from the websites that you visit: Your IP address indicates where in the world you’re connected to the web, and it’s one of the key pieces of information that sites and marketers use to work out who you are.

When iCloud Private Relay is enabled, you’ve got two choices when it comes to IP addresses. You can carry on reporting your general location (which city you’re closest to, more or less)—so that local data such as a weather forecast still shows up correctly—or you can go vaguer and only report your country and time zone to websites that request it.

As an additional flourish, the service encrypts your data as it leaves your device, which means no one can digitally eavesdrop on your communications. Many websites and apps already take care of this by default, but where there are gaps, iCloud Private Relay will fill them. It means that anything you type into a form inside a web browser, from searches to addresses, is kept away from prying eyes.

Finally, iCloud Private Relay also keeps your DNS (Domain Name System) queries secret—essentially, the websites you’re looking up on your device. As with IP addresses, this data can be used to create a profile of who you are and what you’re interested in, which in turn can be sold to advertisers. With iCloud Private Relay enabled, this is much harder for companies to do.

How It Works

iCloud Private Relay routes your traffic through two relays.

Illustration: Apple

iCloud Private Relay deploys what Apple calls “dual-hop” architecture—there are two stops or relays between your device and the internet. One stop is run by Apple, where the IP address is visible but the name of the website you’re visiting is encrypted; the second stop is run by Apple’s “third-party partners” and knows the website you’re visiting but not what your IP address is (it has the responsibility of assigning a new IP address for you).

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