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Apple CEO Tim Cook previews new privacy protections at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference at Apple Park in Cupertino, California, on June 7. A new VPN feature called “private relay” that masks users’ IP addresses and browsing activity will not be available in China, among other countries. Photo: AFP

Apple’s new ‘private relay’ VPN will be available in Hong Kong, not mainland China, source says

  • Apple’s ‘private relay’ feature for iCloud, which hides users’ browsing data even from the company itself, will be available in Hong Kong, not mainland China
  • The feature, expected to roll out later this year, is one of multiple new privacy protections Apple unveiled at its developer conference on Monday

Apple Inc’s new “private relay” feature, designed to obscure a user’s web browsing behaviour from internet service providers and advertisers will not be available in mainland China but will be available in Hong Kong, a person close to the situation told the Post on Tuesday.

The feature was one of a number of privacy protections Apple announced at its annual software developer conference on Monday, the latest in a years-long effort by the company to cut down on the tracking of its users by advertisers and to offer its customers greater data privacy.

Aside mainland China, for regulatory reasons it also will not be available in Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda and the Philippines, Apple said.

Six times Apple gave in to China

The “private relay” feature first sends web traffic to a server maintained by Apple, where it is stripped of a piece of information called an IP address. From there, Apple sends the traffic to a second server maintained by a third-party operator who assigns the user a temporary IP address and sends the traffic onward to its destination website.

The use of an outside party in the second hop of the relay system is intentional, Apple said, to prevent even Apple from knowing both the user’s identity and what website the user is visiting.

Apple has not yet disclosed which outside partners it will use in the system but said it plans to name them in the future. The feature likely will not become available to the public until later this year.

In an about-face, Apple removes Hong Kong protest map app after backlash

IP addresses can be used to track users in a variety of ways, including as a key ingredient in “fingerprinting,” a practice in which advertisers string together disparate data to deduce a user’s identity. Both Apple and Alphabet Inc’s Google prohibit this.

Combined with Apple’s previous steps, the “private relay” feature “will effectively render IP addresses useless as a fingerprinting mechanism,” Charles Farina, head of innovation at digital marketing firm Adswerve, told Reuters. It would also prevent advertisers from using IP addresses to pinpoint a person’s location, he said.

Apple’s approach contrasts with social media giant Facebook, which continues to support targeted advertising and recommendations based on user activity.

Once considered a city with one of the world’s most free internets, Hong Kong has been increasingly subject to online censorship since the 2020 roll-out of the National Security Law, which Beijing introduced in the aftermath of anti-government protests in 2019. In January, the Hong Kong government moved to block access to HKChronicle, a website recording anti-government protests and officers’ details, on national security grounds.

Meanwhile, China is currently grappling with new data protection rules in an effort to protect consumer rights and unwarranted commercial use amid an increasingly digitalised economy. China last year officially recognised data as a new factor of production, along with land, labour, capital and technology and is moving forward with both local and national legislation on data privacy.