Apple announced a handful of privacy-focused updates at its annual software developer conference on Monday. One called Private Relay particularly piques the interest of Chinese users living under the country's censorship system, for it encrypts all browsing history so nobody can track or intercept the data.
As my colleague Roman Dillet explains:
When Private Relay is turned on, nobody can track your browsing history — not your internet service provider, anyone standing in the middle of your request between your device and the server you’re requesting information from. We’ll have to wait a bit to learn more about how it works exactly.
The excitement didn't last long. Apple told Reuters that Private Relay won't be available in China alongside Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda and the Philippines.
Apple couldn't be immediately reached by TechCrunch for comment.
Virtual private networks or VPNs are popular tools for users in China to bypass the "great firewall" censorship apparatus, accessing web services that are otherwise blocked or slowed down. But VPNs don't necessarily protect users' privacy because they simply funnel all the traffic through VPN providers' servers instead of users' internet providers, so users are essentially entrusting VPN firms with protecting their identities. Private Relay, on the other hand, doesn't even allow Apple to see one's browsing activity.
In an interview with Fast Company, Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, explained why the new feature may be superior to VPNs:
"We hope users believe in Apple as a trustworthy intermediary, but we didn’t even want you to have to trust us [because] we don’t have this ability to simultaneously source your IP and the destination where you’re going to — and that’s unlike VPNs. And so we wanted to provide many of the benefits that people are seeking when in the past they’ve decided to use a VPN, but not force that difficult and conceivably perilous privacy trade-off in terms of trusting in a single intermediary."
It's unclear whether Private Relay will simply be excluded from system upgrades for users in China and the other countries where it's restricted, or it will be blocked by internet providers in those regions. It also remains to be seen whether the feature will be available to Apple users in Hong Kong, which has seen an increase in online censorship in the past year.
Like all Western tech firms operating in China, Apple is trapped between antagonizing Beijing and flouting the values it espouses at home. Apple has a history of caving in to Beijing's censorship pressure, from migrating all user data in China to a state-run cloud center, cracking down on independent VPN apps in China, limiting free speech in Chinese podcasts, to removing RSS feed readers from the China App Store.