Carriers Are Pissed About Apple’s Best New Privacy Feature

Carriers Are Pissed About Apple’s Best New Privacy Feature
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

Apple’s new Private Relay feature for iPhones isn’t sitting well with carriers, and some operators are doing all they can to squash the privacy setting before it reaches your iPhone.

Announced at last year’s WWDC, Private Relay is a new iCloud+ feature that pushes your web traffic requests through encrypted VPN-like filters so nobody — not even Apple — can see your internet traffic. It crucially protects you from ISPs or websites that might use your DNS records and IP address to generate profiles and serve targeted ads.

Instead of tunnelling your data like a VPN, Private Relay encrypts your data before passing it through an Apple-managed proxy server that decouples the DNS request from your IP address then moves it on to an undisclosed “trusted partner” that uses a fake approximate IP address. While it has several limitations — the feature only works in Safari, you need a paid iCloud+ account, and it doesn’t hide your region — Private Relay is generally regarded as a useful privacy tool, if short of being a full VPN.

According to a report from The Telegraph, European carriers are bricking the feature. An open letter (via a report from The Telegraph) signed by carrier giants Vodafone, Telefonica, and T-Mobile claims Apple’s new privacy feature would hinder their ability to manage networks and infringes upon EU “digital sovereignty.”

“The way private relay is implemented will have significant consequences in terms of undermining European digital sovereignty. Furthermore, private relay will impair others to innovate and compete in downstream digital markets and may negatively impact operators’ ability to efficiently manage telecommunication networks,” the letter reads.

Operators are expecting the European Commission to label Apple a “digital gatekeeper,” a title the report claims could “stop services such as private relay.”

There are also reports going around suggesting T-Mobile/Sprint in the United States is blocking Private Relay when your phone is connected to its mobile network, but that might be a simplification of what’s really going on.

Twitter user Jon Guidry (via 9to5Mac), a T-Mobile customer, attempted to enable Private Relay but was instead greeted with a notice explaining the feature was “turned off for your cellular plan” and warning the network can therefore monitor him.

Some news outlets proposed T-Mobile’s network might be slowly rolling this feature out, which would explain why some customers can still enable Private Relay. However, leaked documents published by The T-Mo Report give a more likely explanation: that customers with certain content filtering and blocking features, like T-Mobile’s Web Guard, can’t access Private Relay because it breaks those services.

It’s also worth mentioning that a T-Mobile support page replied to the above Twitter post and promised to “dig right into this with you and make sure your access is 100%.” We had no problems enabling Private Relay on a iPhone 12 Pro running iOS 15.1.1 on T-Mobile, and didn’t encounter any notice of it being turned off. Nor did AppleInsider when testing with 25 users who previously had the function off.

We’ve reached out to both Apple and T-Mobile for an explanation as to what exactly is going on. Private Relay is currently in public beta in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey. The feature is turned off by default and must be manually enabled within Settings.