Apple bans new privacy feature in China

Apple says a new “Private Pages” feature designed to hide a user’s web browsing behavior from Internet service providers and advertisers will not be available in China for regulatory reasons.

The feature was one of several privacy protections Apple announced at its annual Software Developers Conference on Monday, and it’s the latest in a years-long effort by the company to reduce tracking of its users by advertisers and third parties.

Apple’s decision to ban the feature in China is the latest in a series of concessions the company has made on privacy in a country that accounts for nearly 15% of its revenue.

In 2018, Apple transferred the digital keys used to lock the iCloud data of Chinese users, allowing authorities to work through local courts to access the information.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party maintains an extensive monitoring system to monitor how citizens use the country’s heavily censored internet. Under President Xi Jinping, the space for dissent in China has shrunk, while censorship has expanded.

No more “fingerprints”

Apple’s “Private Relay” feature first sends web traffic to a server operated by Apple, where it is stripped of information called an IP address. From there, Apple sends the traffic to a second server run by an external operator that assigns the user a temporary IP address and sends the traffic to the destination website.

Apple said that the use of a third party in the second step of the paging system is also intended to prevent Apple from knowing who a user is and what website they are visiting.

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Apple said it will not offer “special relays” in Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda and the Philippines either.

Apple has not yet revealed which third-party partners it will use in the system, but said it plans to name them in the future. The feature will likely not be available to the public until the end of the year.

IP addresses can be used to track users in a number of ways, including as a key element of “fingerprinting,” a practice in which advertisers collect disparate data to infer a user’s identity. This is prohibited by both Apple and Alphabet Inc.

Along with Apple’s previous steps, the “private paging” feature will render IP addresses useless as a fingerprinting mechanism, Charles Farina, head of innovation at digital marketing firm Adswerve, told Reuters.

It would also prevent advertisers from using IP addresses to locate a person, he said.

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