Apple has spent a lot of time fighting as a protector of users’ privacy. CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly stated that privacy is “a fundamental human right”, and the company has based several advertising campaigns around its privacy promises, and it has had high-profile battles with the authorities to keep users’ devices private and secure.
Space is simple: our products protect your privacy. But this promise has changed very subtly in the wake of this week’s iCloud Plus announcement, which for the first time brought together new security protection in a paid subscription service. The tone is still “our products keep you safe”
iCloud has always been one of Apple’s simplest services. You get 5 GB of free storage to back up everything from photos, to messages and app data, and you pay a monthly subscription if you want more (or just want to set Apple’s ransom when you inevitably run out of storage). Apple is not changing its pricing or storage options as part of its move to iCloud Plus. Prices will continue to range from $ 0.99 a month for 50 GB of storage up to $ 9.99 for 2 TB. But what is change is the list of features you get, which expands by three.
The first change is more within iCloud’s traditional cloud storage mission, and is an extension of Apple’s existing HomeKit Secure Video offering. iCloud Plus now lets you stream and record securely from an unlimited number of cameras, up from a previous maximum of five.
However, with the new Private Relay and Hide My Mail features, iCloud Plus is expanding its mandate from a storage-based service to a storage and privacy service. The privacy-focused add-ons are smaller in the large system of protection Apple offers throughout its ecosystem, and Apple does not use them as a justification for increasing iCloud costs. But they still open the door to so-called “premium” privacy features that become part of Apple’s large and growing service empire.
The features appear as a footage from Apple about the limits of what privacy can do on the device. “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone” was how the company gave the promise in an ad from 2019, but when your iPhone needs to connect to the internet to surf the web, receive emails and generally earn “in” in ” iPhone, ”inevitably some of the privacy of the infrastructure that serves it rests.
The most interesting of these new features is Apple’s Private Relay, which aims to protect your web traffic from prying eyes in iOS 15 and macOS Monterey. It hides your data from both ISPs and advertisers who can create a detailed profile of you based on your browser history. While it sounds a bit like a VPN, Apple claims that Private Relays’ dual-hop design means that even Apple itself does not have a complete picture of your browsing data. However, standard VPNs require a level of trust which means you need to be careful about which VPN you use.
As Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, explains, VPNs can protect your data from outsiders, but they “involve relying heavily on a single centralized device: the VPN provider. And there is a lot of responsibility for that intermediary, and involves the user making a very difficult trust decision to expose all that information to a single entity. ”
“We wanted to take it completely out of the equation by having a dual-hop architecture,” Federighi said Fast company.
This is how it works. When you use Private Relay, your Internet traffic is sent through two proxy servers on the way to your destination. First, your traffic is encrypted before it leaves the device. So when it hits the first Apple-operated server, it is assigned an anonymous IP that hides your specific location. Then the second server, which is controlled by a third party, decrypts the URL and forwards the traffic to the destination.
Apple can not see which site you are requesting, only the IP address you are requesting from, and third parties cannot see that IP address, only the site you are requesting. (Apple says they also use Oblivious DNS over HTTPS.) This is different from most “dual VPN” and “multi-hop” VPN services you can subscribe to today, where a provider can control both servers. You may be able to combine a VPN and a proxy server to do something similar. Apple says that Private Relay will not affect performance, which may be a concern for these other services.
While Private Relay is theoretically more private than a regular VPN, Apple’s offering is also more limited. You can not use it to trick websites into believing that you can access them from elsewhere, so you will not be able to use Private Relay to circumvent geographical restrictions on content blocked by a government or service such as Netflix. And it only seems to cover browsing data through Safari, not third-party browsers or native apps. In a WWDC developer session on the feature, Apple says that Private Relay will also include DNS queries and a “small subset of app traffic”, especially insecure HTTP traffic. But no other browsers were mentioned, and Apple clarified The Verge that it only handles app traffic when the app technically accidentally loads the web in a browser window.
In addition to Private Relay, iCloud Plus also includes Hide my Email, a feature designed to protect the privacy of your email address. Instead of having to use your real email address for every site that requests it (increases the risk of an important part of your login information becoming public, not to mention being flooded with spam), Hide My Email you generate and share unique random addresses which then forward any messages they receive back to your true email address. It is another privacy-focused feature that lies outside iCloud’s traditional focus area, and may be useful even though similar options have been available for many years.
Gmail, for example, lets you use a simple “+” symbol to add random extra characters to your email address. Even Apple’s own “Sign in with Apple” service pulls a similar trick and assigns random email addresses to each service you use it with. But the advantage of Apple’s new service is that it gives you an easily accessible shortcut to generate them right in its Mail app and Safari, and puts the feature front and center in a way that seems to increase its usual appeal.
Apple can charge for Private Relay and Hide My Email by bundling them in iCloud subscriptions, but these iCloud Plus add-ons are still dwarfed by the order of privacy already built into Apple’s hardware and software. There is no indication that any of these existing privacy features will be locked behind a monthly subscription fee anytime soon. In fact, the list of built-in protections Apple offers continues.
This includes a new Mail Privacy Protection feature in the Mail app in iOS 15, which sends your emails via a relay service to confuse tracking pixels that may be hiding in them (read more about tracking pixels here). There’s also a new App Privacy Report feature for iOS 15 that shows how often apps have access to your location, camera, microphone and other data.
But with iCloud Plus, Apple now offers two privacy protections that are different from those included for free with the purchase of a device, and the distinction between the two seems arbitrary to some degree. Apple justifies payment for features such as Private Relay and Hide My Email due to the increased cost of running these services, but Mail Privacy Protection also relies on a relay server, which is probably not free to run.
Regardless of the reason, choosing to charge for these services means that Apple has opened the door to first-class privacy features that become part of its increasingly important service business, beyond just the hardware business. Compliance with privacy was already part of the company’s efforts to lock you into the devices; now it can be part of the attempt to lock you into the services. The walls around Apple’s garden are creeping higher and higher all the time.