This year’s edition of Apple’s annual software developer conference, the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), kicked off on Monday with a roughly 90-minute keynote address that saw top company executives show off a slew of new updates for major products.

Key announcements made by the American technology giant included software for iPhone, Mac, iPad, Watch and Apple TV, new health features, and updates to Siri, AirPods, and iCloud. In addition to these, Apple unveiled new updates focused on tightening the protection of its users’ privacy.

A particular update that stood out from Apple’s several privacy-focused measures is “Private Relay”. This new feature encrypts all browsing history and prevents third parties from intercepting the communication between your device and the server you’re requesting information from. When turned on, nobody can track a user’s online activity – not even the internet service provider or Apple itself. This is due to the fact that the feature uses a server maintained by a third-party operator, which will assign temporary IP addresses for users as they browse the internet.

Apple’s use of an outside party in the relay system is intentional to prevent even the company from knowing both the user’s identity and what website the user is visiting, it explained. 

Private relay is the latest in a string of efforts by Apple meant to curb the tracking of its users’ browsing activity by ISPs, advertisers, and other third parties. The feature is likely to go live later this year but Apple has revealed that it won’t be available in some countries due to “regulatory reasons”.

Countries where the company will not offer private relay include South Africa, Egypt, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Colombia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, the Philippines and China. In the latter, users live under a vast surveillance system and notorious internet censorship, and Apple has had to make several compromises on privacy to meet the demands of the ruling Communist party.

It is unsurprising to see African countries on the list of nations excluded from the private relay rollout as cutting off access to the internet and social media is common in the region. A report by privacy protection company Surfshark shows that at least 27 countries in Africa have blocked or heavily restricted social media access since 2015.

Like China, those excluded by Apple have in place some kind of internet censorship regulating their citizens’ online activities – often in the form of laws guiding against misinformation, hate speech, or cybercrimes – or have outrightly blocked access to social media and the internet in recent times.

The Egyptian government in particular has one of the most extensive surveillance networks in Africa and has ordered the blocking of hundreds of websites that belong to news outlets, blogs, human rights organisations, and tools such as virtual private networks used to bypass the blockades. 

Apple is yet to disclose the outside partners it will use for the private relay system. The company also did not specify if the update will be blocked by internet providers in the countries where the feature is restricted or will simply be excluded from system upgrades for users there.

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Michael Ajifowoke | Author

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