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Understanding Apple iOS 15’s ‘Private Relay,’ ‘Hide My Email’ & other privacy updates

Apple’s latest privacy updates further cement the tech giant’s place as a key player in the future of consumer data privacy

At the company’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) keynote on June 7, Apple unveiled a number of key privacy-focused updates that will be included in the new iCloud and iOS 15 operating system. Here’s an overview of the changes – and what top industry voices are saying about them.

There are plenty of new changes on the horizon for Apple iOS 15. Among the headliners is iCloud Plus, an upgraded version of the tech titan’s cloud storage solution. The service will include access to a VPN called ‘Private Relay’ and unlimited storage for HomeKit-connected security cameras, as well as an anonymized email service (more on that below). Here’s what you need to know about the updates.

Built-in VPN access – and higher walls surrounding the garden

‘Private Relay’ encrypts users’ internet traffic on Safari. It’s able to route traffic through two separate relays to obfuscate information regarding who the user is. While one relay gives the user an anonymous IP address, the second is used to send the browsing query to the appropriate results. Apple actually insists that ‘Private Relay’ differs from other VPNs due to this feature; traditional VPNs do not send user data through two steps. The company says this second layer of protection better protects consumers’ browsing data from being accessed – even by the user’s network provider or by Apple itself.

Industry experts like Tal Chalozin, chief technology officer and co-founder of adtech company Innovid, says the move raises the already-towering walls of the walled gardens of today’s top tech players. “[This ensures] all access to the external world will be a proxy by them. Google is working on the same [type of] offering, [which it calls] ‘Willful IP Blindness’. My bet is that both solutions will become the norm in the long run and that means all internet traffic within those two camps will be handled fully by them.”

And others agree that the move, while it may be protecting consumer data, is also likely to benefit Apple by giving the company greater control over the tracking and advertising landscape. “This is a continued extension of Apple focusing on anti-tracking measures and making decisions on how users are tracked in the ecosystem when using their Safari browser,” notes Sara Stevens, vice-president of digital capabilities at Epsilon. “Their priorities indicate continued restriction of tracking in the open internet, though at the same time they have also made moves that indicate an increasing focus on their own advertising revenue.”

App privacy reports

Users will soon gain more detailed information about the ways in which various apps are collecting and using their personal information and tracking their activity across the device.

New privacy reports will be available to Apple users. These run-downs include information such as which apps are using personal information and what kind of data is being collected, as well as how much data is being shared with third parties for tracking purposes. These reports will also indicate how frequently certain apps access users’ cameras, microphones and geographic data.

The information offers users a kind of report card for all of a device’s applications, but could present new challenges for marketers who rely on the collection, storage and sale of first-, second- and third-party data for critical tracking and ad targeting purposes.

Many experts believe that Apple’s highly public shift toward privacy-centric technology reflects a larger trend shaping up in the marketing and technology sectors. “Marketers who think this is all about Apple and branding need to recognize how far the sands have shifted on the privacy debate,” says Jules Polonetsky, chief executive at bipartisan think tank the Future of Privacy Forum. “In many circles, the targeted ads debate has moved from opt in or out to serious debate over banning ‘surveillance advertising’. Those who see a role for responsible uses of data for marketing should recognize the major efforts needed to respond to concerns.”

Elevated email inbox privacy

As it stands, many marketing emails embed tracking devices that can collect users’ IP addresses and also send signals to senders that indicate when an email is opened by a specific recipient. Apple has announced that new privacy features will be introduced to iOS Mail apps to impede marketers’ abilities to gather information regarding open rates.

As part of these changes, a new ‘Mail Privacy Protection’ tab will be added within the Mail app. Within this app, users can decide how much personal information is shared with email senders (many of whom are marketers). Users can restrict access to their IP addresses and location information.

Furthermore, Apple is debuting ‘Hide My Email’, which is automatically included in iCloud, Safari and the Apple Mail app. The new feature enables the creation of single-use, randomly-generated email addresses – like a burner account – that can be used to forward mail to users’ real accounts. The new service is designed to further limit companies’ ability to collect consumers’ personal data via email and may help mitigate the rates at which users receive junk mail.

“These changes will impact providers that may rely heavily on IP addresses for identification,” says Epsilon’s Stevens. Without access to data like IP addresses, Stevens, like many others, says that marketers will need to adopt new, more private means by which to track user behavior and serve targeted ads. “Marketers should increasingly favor identity resolution providers that focus on privacy-safe, person-level, consented identifiers.”

Siri audio data updates

Siri, the memeable voice assistant baked into all Apple devices running operating systems from iOS 5 onward, will soon be able to process audio while offline (today the service requires an internet connection for full functionality).

With the new operating system, Siri will be able to process speech signals on the device itself, which the company believes will help mitigate nonconsensual audio recording – another privacy-focused move.

Ultimately, the changes announced on June 7 add to the debates concerning consumer privacy rights currently playing out in conference rooms, on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures from coast to coast. And most experts agree that the pattern now unfolding is clear: consumers are in the driver’s seat. “Between Apple-led industry changes and new laws and regulation,” says Don Marti, vice-president of ecosystem innovation at creator-centric digital media company CafeMedia, “the general direction that things are moving is that whether or not you can collect data on a person is going to better match that person’s actual preferences.”

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