Private web browsing in 2022
For at least 5 years I’ve prided myself on being a fairly platform-agnostic guy. If you’ve been working with computers long enough to become jaded you know the drill: everything does more or less the same thing and it’s awful in its own way whether it’s Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD or something else. Your passions tempered by bitter experience, you can use whatever’s put in front of you and look on aloof whenever someone insecure feels the need to explain why their preferred platform is the best.
It is therefore uncomfortable to admit that one platform, in one key aspect, has become the best. I’m talking about Safari. Yes, that dinky browser that only works on one brand of computer and never seems to keep up with web standards. I now feel like I’m compromising severely if I have to use anything else. Why on earth is that? Aren’t all browsers basically the same? Well no, it’s all to do with iCloud+ Private Relay.
I wrote about private relay back in June after it was announced at WWDC. I predicted it would be amazing. Now I’ve had a chance to use the beta version I can confirm that it is amazing.
- None of the websites I’m visiting know my real IP address.
- It’s approximately the same speed as regular web browsing.
- I don’t have to trust any VPN providers.
- I don’t even have to trust Cloudflare or Akamai who are routing my traffic, thanks to Apple’s architecture.
- I don’t have to trust the Tor network and software.
- I have it on both desktop and mobile.
- Together with Hide My Email (random iCloud email aliases), I can register website accounts completely anonymously and without having to complete lots of captchas.
- If I choose to use it, browsing history in iCloud is E2E-encrypted (same as Firefox Sync, to be fair)
Would this defend my privacy if I was being actively investigated by law enforcement for some reason? Probably not; in principle they could ask Apple to do all kinds of things. But as a regular joe this puts up a really strong defence against passive dragnet surveillance and advertising, for me and for everybody else who’s paying for an iCloud subscription.
What am I supposed to do on Windows or Linux, or Chrome or Firefox? Set up my own personal VPN on a VPS? Do my “research” and hope that ExpressVPN or Mullvad is as secure as they claim, knowing that they have all the information to analyse my traffic if they wanted to? Use Tor, putting up with the slow speeds and hoping that the exit node doesn’t insert an exploit into a non-HTTPS stream? I’m a second class citizen on the internet, browsing raw.
The weird thing is that this killer feature doesn’t have to be Apple-specific. Mozilla, Microsoft or Google could easily copy the same architecture and team up with some third parties to provide the same VPN-like privacy experience. They just haven’t. Private Relay is kind of flying under the radar. I think it’s one of those things where most consumers don’t get the significance and a lot of big tech is incentivised to keep it quiet because it’s going to affect their advertising bottom line. I haven’t seen a call for copycats. Let this be it: dammit big tech, copy this idea!
I know that various people reading this won’t be convinced and they wouldn’t switch to Apple/Safari if I paid them. Even so I hope those people can see that there is value in this kind of service that provides most of the privacy with minimal inconvenience. This is moving web consumption in the right direction. If you do have paid-up iCloud, please turn it on and use it. The more popular and mainstream this concept becomes the better for everybody.