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A First Look at Apple's iOS 15 "Private Relay" feature.

Published: 2021-09-21
Last Updated: 2021-09-21 15:51:03 UTC
by Johannes Ullrich (Version: 1)
2 comment(s)

One of the notable additions to iOS 15, which was officially released yesterday, is its "Private Relay" feature [1]. Unlike a "simple" VPN, the private relay does appear to be more of a proxy service for HTTP, and it uses two hops with distinct entities to not allow one entity to become the new single-point-of-privacy-failure.

An "Apple+" subscription is required to use a private relay. All connections are authenticated with Apple. Apple states that it has some anti-abuse features in place but only mentions rate-limiting as one specific feature. Unlike most VPN services, Apple publishes a list of their egress IP addresses, including the geolocation assigned to them [2]. It does not appear to be possible to alter your geolocation using Private Relay. One setting allows for a "more relaxed" location matching. Many people sign up for VPN services to watch content designated for a particular location. Apple's private relay does not appear to support this use case.

So, in short, Apple focuses on privacy with its Private Relay. The Private Relay appears to be limited to HTTP(s) traffic. Application not using HTTP(s) do not appear to use Private Relay. I used as a test the "Speedtest" application from Ookla, and it still displayed my actual ISP.

Each Private Relay egress point uses an IPv4 and IPv6 IP address. Even if your network is IPv4 only, you will be able to connect to IPv6 resources. This confused me at first, as my home network does not use IPv6 right now, and I still appeared to use an IPv6 address. My first guess was that some traffic still used the IPv6 address provided by the cell phone interface. But I ruled that out by disabling the cell phone interface. If the LTE/5G is used, the IPv6 address used is Apple's and not the ISPs. So both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses are anonymized.

After enabling Private Relay (Settings->iCloud->Private Relay), you will see the following DNS requests/responses for mask.icloud.com (A records and a HTTPS RR [Type 56]). The IP address I got for mask.icloud.com was in the 139.178.128.0/17 network, a network owned by Apple, but not its usual 17/8 network.

The connection to the relay uses QUIC to port 443/UDP and TLS 1.3. The client hello includes the server name extension and the server name "mask.icloud.com." Only 3 cipher suites are offered (TLS_AES_128_GCM_SHA256, TLS_AES_256_GCM_SHA384, TLS_CHACHA20_POLY1305_SHA256). The server ends up selecting the AES128 suite. Application Layer Protocol Negotiation (ALPN) is also used, with unsurprisingly HTTP/3 being the only option.

The HTTPS RR is interesting. It is not yet finalized as an RFC as far as I know [3][4]. But I have seen it pop up occasionally. For the case of mask.icloud.com, I did not get a response for the HTTPS RR. Maybe it will show up in the future. But the idea is that part of the ALPN negotiation will happen via DNS. HTTPS RR is a performance feature, but it can also be used for encrypted client hellos (ECH), which is supposed to replace respective TXT records that have been used in the past to encrypt the server name option.

So in short:

  • Does "Private Relay" replace VPNs: No. Private Relay appears only to encrypt/anonymize HTTP(S) traffic. Some Apps may still reveal your actual IP address. But as far as Safari goes, it works like a VPN. You are also not able to appear in a different location.
  • Can you block the use of "Private Relay" in a corporate network: Yes. Overwrite/block DNS requests for mask.icloud.com and mask-h2.icloud.com (I didn't see the second hostname, but "Private Relay" may use it per Apple's documentation)
  • Can I block people from using "Private Relay" to accessing my site: Yes. You would need to block Apple's long list of egress points. But there appears to be little point in blocking them.
  • Are websites still able to track me? Yes and no. Websites usually do not rely on the IP address to track you but on cookies and other browser features. Private Relay only hides your IP address. It solves the "last mile" privacy issue of ISPs tracking your behavior.

Private Relay does offer some additional privacy protections. It is a bit less than a "real" VPN, but close to it and easier to use. (plus free if you already have iCloud+).

[1] https://developer.apple.com/support/prepare-your-network-for-icloud-private-relay/
[2] https://mask-api.icloud.com/egress-ip-ranges.csv
[3] https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/draft-ietf-dnsop-svcb-https-07
[4] https://blog.cloudflare.com/speeding-up-https-and-http-3-negotiation-with-dns/

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Johannes B. Ullrich, Ph.D. , Dean of Research, SANS.edu
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