private relay vs vpn

Private Relay vs. VPN: What to Know

Personal and private data are things we all want to keep that way. There are a lot of data privacy issues that are becoming more apparent, and as consumers, we tend to go with companies that value our privacy.

One way Apple is attempting to show they work to keep user data private is with the introduction of Private Relay.

iCloud users can protect their traffic because It obscures their web browsing by sending data through a pair of relays. Those relays hide your exact location or IP and mask your browsing contents.

Sometimes Private Relay is compared to a VPN, but there are major differences between the two, which we detail below.

What is Private Relay?

Private Relay is something you can use simply by signing onto an Apple device with an iCloud+ subscription. You can enable Private Relay in your iCloud settings, and once you do that, it begins to shield your Safari activity.

When you connect to a website, Private Relay will choose two servers at random for your traffic.

iCloud Private Relay prevents third-party companies from figuring out what you’re doing when you’re browsing the web, but only when you’re using Safari. Apple says Private Relay will also apply to any DNS queries when users enter site names and insecure HTTP traffic.

There are things not covered by Private Relay, however.

For example, private domain name queries, local network connections, and internet traffic using a proxy aren’t covered. Traffic using a regular VPN is also not covered.

Since it’s built into the operating system, you don’t need to do anything special to adopt its use.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. A VPN is something you can use for work or personal applications. When you browse using a VPN, your traffic is encrypted. Encrypted traffic means no prying eyes can see what you’re doing online.

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Under typical circumstances, when you try to access a website, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will receive the request. Then, it will redirect you to your destination. When you use a VPN, on the other hand, it redirects traffic through the VPN server first. Then it sends you to your destination.

Key features of a VPN include:

  • Secure data transfer, which can be especially important if you’re working remotely. Your employer may require the use of a VPN to gain access to the company network.
  • You can access regional web content which isn’t otherwise accessible. You can use VPN location spoofing, changing to a server in another country, so you’re basically changing your location.
  • A VPN will often utilize two-factor authentication.
  • Protocols are encrypted, meaning that you’re not leaving behind evidence of your search history and cookies, as well as your overall internet history.

What Are the Differences?

The key similarities between Private Relay and a VPN are that your public IP is encrypted from start to finish with both. You also get a new IP address when you connect, but with Private Relay all benefits are limited to Safari.

That’s where the similarities end.

Many VPNs will encrypt all of the information coming out of a device. The VPN will assign you a new IP address. Then you’re connected to a network of servers, and you’re then sent to your destination.

With Private Relay, only some of your traffic is handled via encryption. We’ve touched on this, but Apple says Private Relay covers Safari, DNS-related traffic on your device, and a small amount of traffic from apps.

private relay vs vpn

Another feature of a VPN that you don’t have with Private Relay is geo-blocking. When you use a VPN, it can overcome any geographic restrictions, so you’re able to access global content.

To provide an example of this, that’s common—many people use a VPN to stream content from Netflix from other countries. Of course, there are also censorship issues that lead people to use VPNs.

Most VPNs will offer something called split-tunneling, which you don’t get with Private Relay.

With split tunneling, you don’t have to use device-wide encryption. Instead, you can encrypt just one app or a few apps on your device. That way you may be able to preserve your speed but still get the benefits of a VPN.

Apple is careful to say that Private Relay is decidedly not a VPN even though it sounds similar in many ways.

While iCloud+ is going to add some security and privacy features, it’s unlikely Private Relay will be able to replace a VPN altogether. VPNs remain more powerful and flexible than Private Relay.

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