With iCloud Plus, Apple’s privacy promise is combined with an upsell

With iCloud Plus, Apple’s privacy promise is combined with an upsell

Private Relay and Hide my Email are privacy features included with iCloud Plus The first change sits more within iCloud’s traditional cloud storage remit, and is an expansion of Apple’s existing HomeKit Secure Video offering. iCloud Plus now lets you securely stream and record from an unlimited number of cameras, up from a previous maximum of five.

The pitch is simple: our products protect your privacy. But this promise has shifted very subtly in the wake of this week’s iCloud Plus announcement, which for the first time bundled new security protections into a paid subscription service. The pitch is still “our products keep you safe,” but now one of those “products” is a monthly subscription that doesn’t come with the device in your box — even if those devices are getting more built-in protections as well. iCloud has always been one of Apple’s simplest services. You get 5GB of free storage to backup everything from images, to messages and app data, and you pay a monthly subscription if you want more (or just want to silence Apple’s ransom note when you inevitably run out of storage). Apple isn’t changing anything about the pricing or storage options as part of the shift to iCloud Plus. Prices will still range from $0.99 a month for 50GB of storage up to $9.99 for 2TB. But what is changing is the list of features you’re getting, which is expanding by three. With the new Private Relay and Hide My Mail features, however, iCloud Plus is expanding its remit from a storage-based service into a storage and privacy service. The privacy-focused additions are minor in the grand scheme of the protections Apple offers across its ecosystem, and Apple isn’t using them as justification for increasing the cost of iCloud. But they nevertheless open the door to so-called “premium” privacy features becoming a part of Apple’s large and growing services empire.

The features appear as an admission from Apple about the limits of what privacy protections can do on-device. “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone” was how the company put its promise in a 2019 ad, but when your iPhone needs to connect to the internet to browse the web, receive email, and generally earn the “i” in “iPhone,” inevitably some of its privacy rests on the infrastructure serving it. The most interesting of these new features is Apple’s Private Relay, which aims to shield your web traffic from prying eyes in iOS 15 and macOS Monterey. It hides your data from both internet service providers as well as advertisers that might build a detailed profile on you based on your browsing history. While it sounds a bit like a VPN, Apple claims the Private Relay’s dual-hop design means even Apple itself doesn’t have a complete picture of your browsing data. Regular VPNs, meanwhile, require a level of trust that means you need to be careful about which VPN you use.

Image: Apple As Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering explains, VPNs can protect your data from outsiders, but they “involve putting a lot of trust in a single centralized entity: the VPN provider. And that’s a lot of responsibility for that intermediary, and involves the user making a really difficult trust decision about exposing all of that information to a single entity.” “We wanted to take that completely out of the equation by having a dual-hop architecture,” Federighi told Fast Company.

Here’s how it works. When using Private Relay your internet traffic is being sent via two proxy servers on its way to its destination. First, your traffic gets encrypted before it leaves your device. Then, once it hits the initial, Apple-operated server, it gets assigned an anonymous IP that hides your specific location. Next up, the second server, which is controlled by a third-party, decrypts the web address and forwards the traffic to its destination. Apple thinks today’s VPNs pose “a really difficult trust decision” Apple can’t see which website you’re requesting, only the IP address you’re requesting it from, and third-parties can’t see that IP address, only the website you’re requesting. (Apple says it also uses Oblivious DNS over HTTPS.) That’s different from most “double VPN” and “multi-hop” VPN services you can subscribe to today, where a provider may control both servers. You could perhaps combine a VPN and a proxy server to do something similar, though. Apple says Private Relay won’t impact performance, which can be a concern with these other services.

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