iOS15: The Darkening of the Network Continues

Privacy at the Cost of Network Services

The release of Apple’s iOS15 beta (and macOS Monterey) brought additional changes in the name of user privacy. Increasing user privacy and security has been a trend over the last few years and it’s a good thing as a general direction. However, each and every change, comes with implications to the user and the support they can get from the network. iOS15 has three significant changes detailed below and each of them have corresponding benefits and implications. In total, combined with prior changes, it represents significantly less information that a network operator, like you home ISP, can use to customize your network experience. Services such as enhanced quality of service, simplified logins and parental controls are all being impacted.  Before we dive in, it is important to note that these observations are based on beta releases, and therefor subject to change. Let’s look at the three changes.

The Introduction of “Private Relay” for Safari users and iCloud

Private Relay is akin to a simple VPN technology and is only available only to iCloud users while using the Safari Browser. If you are a fan of chrome or Firefox, it is not helping you. It is a dramatic increase in user privacy and leverages a “dual proxy” system to hide your identity. Websites can no longer see who the user is, and your ISP (Internet Service Provider) can no longer see what web sites you are going to. So, a big plus for privacy, but the implications are real. Some ISPs help prioritize your network traffic based on the service you are accessing. For example, a Zoom call gets higher priority than Gmail. Also, not knowing the web site means that parental controls cannot work as they can’t filter sites if they don’t know what sits you are visiting. Private Relay can also end up limiting targeted advertising. While I am uncomfortable with the current level of targeting, I also don’t want to return to the days of getting spammed with completely useless advertisements either. It is interesting to note that the Private Relay service is based on a higher-level iCloud service, so effectively there is a type of hidden fee for this level of privacy.

Encrypted DNS is turned on by default

Encrypting the Domain Name Server (DNS) information is another technique to hide the websites you visit from your ISP. As many iOS apps are now web based, application information is also encrypted. This technique is applicable most other browsers (although not Chrome currently), and thus can impact network services regardless of which browser you use. It was an opt-in feature in iOS14 and is now an opt out feature. In general, as above, any network service that requires knowledge of the website traffic will be impacted.

Hidden Host (device name)

This relatively minor change is good thing for privacy in that many people name their devices with their real names. As a result, you are exposing personal information via the device name. With iOS15 that information is no longer broadcast, shutting down privacy and security holes. Since the device name can be set by the user, and is easily spoofed, most modern network services do not rely on it, so the impact is rather small. Overall, it is predominantly a win for the user with little downside.

Its all about Privacy…. or maybe money

These changes, on their own, have low to moderate impact on the network operator’s ability to deliver high quality services to their customers. On the other hand, when combined with the whole set of changes from the last few years, it is getting harder and harder for the network operators to extend value added services to their customers. This trend, a “darkening of the network” is clearly making it more difficult. The question I am not sure anyone can answer is how much privacy is the right level? What do consumers really want?  Will they pay for more privacy? We will explore that in out next blog. Stay tuned.

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tim colleran