My favorite WWDC21 announcements: all new iCloud+

Last night was fun. Apple’s WWDC21 event announced multiple software updates across their iOS, MacOS, iPadOS and watchOS platforms. I enjoyed the full keynote, particularly the part where they announced the new iCloud+ subscription. The Health-related segments were arduously long though.

It was disappointing that the new 16 inch MacBook wasn’t announced as well.

My most favorite announcement is probably the new iCloud+ subscription that includes privacy-focussed services like “Hide My Email”, “Private Relay” and the new pixel blocking functionality on the Apple Mail app. Other favorite announcements include:

  • TestFlight for Mac.
  • SharePlay for watch party with friends and family.
  • FaceTime on Android, Windows and Linux using web browsers. This brings end-to-end encrypted video calling across all platforms.
  • Universal Control. I can finally use my 2015 MacBook Air keyboard on 2019 MacBook Pro.
  • App Privacy Report. It’s like a mini pi-hole report, for your iOS device.

iCloud+ subscription

I am not an iCloud member at the moment, but with the new functionalities announced last night, I might end up choosing the lowest iCloud tier. It costs 75 INR a month in India, which is roughly about 1 USD. That’s a great price for something that includes,

  • Private Relay, a browser-specific VPN that works on Safari.
  • Hide My Email, to generate random email aliases that redirect all incoming email to your primary email inbox.
  • Custom domain support for iCloud.com email.

It’s not clear what Private Relay is just yet, but in reading beta user experiences on Reddit, it seems that it’s a Safari-specific VPN. The idea seems to be that the customer’s IP address isn’t visible to the websites that they are browsing and their internet service provider. That’s pretty much what commercial VPNs like NordVPN and Mullvad do, and they apply throughout your device. Apple’s service is restricted to the Safari usage though.

I am a devoted Firefox user, but considering that I recently cancelled my NordVPN subscription, switching to Safari for Private Relay feels like a good idea. It boils down to how performant Private Relay is though. VPNs are known to throttle your browsing speeds as they encrypt your data/route traffic through the VPN provider’s node. Private Relay routes your traffic through two hops instead, which is even better privacy-wise but I wonder if performance would take a hit.

I am a huge fan of SimpleLogin and Anonaddy, of which I am a paying customer of the former. They are open source, can be self-hosted, offer API access and offer custom domain support. I wouldn’t be cancelling my SimpleLogin subscription, but using Apple’s “Hide My Email” functionality alongside feels like a good idea. Maybe compartmentalize usage for different purposes?

“Hide My Email” had been a feature that’s part of “Sign in with Apple” functionality but that changes today because “Hide My Email” becomes a standalone app/functionality.

Custom domain support on iCloud.com is very cool as well! In fact, I never signed up for iCloud.com mail until today. I am a ProtonMail user today and I am happy with it in most respects. The end-to-end encryption functionality of ProtonMail isn’t all that useful to me though, as 99% of the communication that I make are with non-ProtonMail customers.

Email, in general, is known to be a protocol that isn’t secure. For anyone that’s looking for secure, private communication, Signal must be the goto option. That brings me to the idea that ProtonMail subscription isn’t necessary for my use case. When it ends in 11 months, I plan on canceling the subscription. Also because iCloud Mail allows usage on third-party apps and platforms, it’s not any different from other IMAP-offerings. This enables me to use the new iCloud mailbox on Android and Windows. Pretty cool for the price it comes at.

TestFlight for Mac

I am very happy with this announcement, mostly because I test Tailscale and Signal releases. Until today, beta testing on Mac has been a waiting game because developers have to submit the release on the App Store, which takes multiple days to be available to the customers. TestFlight speeds up the availability tremendously. I am looking forward to seeing whether Tailscale and Signal devs adopt TestFlight in the coming months. There is no reason not to.

FaceTime

FaceTime’s new link generation functionality is quite nice, which allows inviting non-FaceTime users to join the call using their desktop and mobile browsers. I haven’t used FaceTime ever, but considering that it offers end-to-end encrypted communication (this time even on browsers), I could give it a shot. Performance on browsers is a question though, especially in slow networks.

Signal is my choice of communication today, and it became even better recently because it offers screen sharing, which replaces my occasional need for Zoom. It’s in beta at the moment.

I look forward to trying FaceTime but convincing friends and families to use it is a challenge. Most are devoted WhatsApp users because their social circles are on it. Signal saw an increase in usage briefly in January 2021, which is when WhatsApp announced new terms (they have reversed that decision, by the way) but most of gone back to using WhatsApp because of the lack of social circles.

Overall, WWDC21 was quite nice. I hope to test the betas in the coming days.

Replication mode on VALORANT

The new replication mode on VALORANT is, well, LOL. It starts with 5 players choosing an agent each, and there is a random selector that goes through the list of agents and one is chosen. In our case, it was Raze and the opponents were a Raze bunch too.

I don’t think I like this mode just yet, but I guess I must give it some time.

I cannot imagine how the gameplay would be like when everyone has players with the blind skill. VALORANT social media team give us a sample. Real play must be the same, only 100x worse.

Breeze

It had been a busy few days at my end.

VALORANT greeted with a pleasant surprise tonight though. There’s a new map! Breeze! I have no clue how old this is, but I am definitely enjoy the new view.

Picture of a gameplay from VALORANT.
Picture of a gameplay from VALORANT.
Picture of a gameplay from VALORANT.
Picture of a gameplay from VALORANT.
Picture of a gameplay from VALORANT.
Picture of a gameplay from VALORANT.
Picture of a gameplay from VALORANT.

Facebook must be deleted

Look at this.

Facebook tracks your web presence and activities even outside of their “Facebook.com” domain. Facebook is not a social networking website anymore. They are a data mining corporation, focused on showing targeted ads. They are minting money based on your interests.

That Twitter thread has examples of the level of data that Facebook can collect. They can be so precise that they will know of the time you ordered pizza, what page of a website you are at, what kind of action you are taking on that website, what college you are applying to, and everything inΒ between!

Facebook must be deleted. Today.

At the least, you must be turning off their “Off-Facebook activity”Β settings. Get a copy of your data before you turn that off.

Breach alerts throughout your domain

I am a fan of Have I Been Pwned. So far I have been using the service by periodically checking for my email addresses, or by depending on 1Password’s integration of that service. A much better solution would be to have Have I Been Pwned inform me of breaches that happen throughout my custom domains. Turns out that feature is available!

I have enrolled all of my domains with this new feature. It’s also neat that Have I Been Pwned needs to verify my ownership of the domain only once. I don’t have to leave the DNS records in place for future alerts.

You can sign up for alerts here — Have I Been Pwned Domain Search.

Setting up Pi-hole on the Tailscale network

I have been a fan of NextDNS for the last year or so. It’s easy to use, is cheap, and makes it incredibly easy to manage my ad-block lists. The configuration functionality of NextDNS is great as well, as it allows for compartmentalized setup.

However, I have always wanted to start using Pi-hole as it offers more data control (self-hosted) and because it’s open source. While Pi-hole setup is straightforward and can act as a network-wide ad-blocker within your house, extending that to mobile/other networks, for on-the-go usage is not easy. Pi-hole docs have this guide about setting up that extension, using OpenVPN protocol but I hear Wireguard has superior performance.

I tried Rajan’s guide involving Wireguard, and later came Tailscale which makes VPNs stupidly easy.

Tailscale is built on the top of the Wireguard protocol as well.

Once you have installed and logged into your Tailscale account on your devices, they will basically be available on a flat network, thus allowing your devices to talk to each other. Talk in this context refers to setting up a service/server on one device, making it listen on the Tailscale network and making the other devices connect to it.

For the purpose of this post, I will explain how I set up my Pi-hole to listen on the Tailscale network, allowing for network-wide ad blocking.

Get Tailscale on your devices and log with a Google or Microsoft account

  • Tailscale is available for download on Android, iOS, Windows, Mac and Linux. You can get your copy here.
  • Once you have installed it, log into each device using your Google or Microsoft account.
  • Do so on the Linux device that you are about to use for your Pi-hole as well. If you have a Windows device, you can install Linux on it using Windows Subsystem for Linux.
  • Once that’s completed, you can find your devices on this Tailscale admin page.

Set up Pi-hole on a Linux device

It’s time to install Pi-hole on your Raspberry Pi or the Linux device.

Work through the Pi-hole setup guide here. The basic installer at the top of the page can work.

Note:

While setting that up, you will be prompted to choose a “listening interface”. Choose “tailscale0”, not “eth0”.

Once the set up is done, you can visit Settings > DNS tab of your Pi-hole settings to verify that Listen only on interface tailscale0 is selected under Interface listening behavior.

Image to indicate the "Interface Listening Behavior" setting on Pi-hole
Indicates the “Interface Listening Behavior” setting on my Pi-hole

At this stage, Pi-hole set up is all done!

Marking Pi-hole as DNS resolver for all Tailscale devices

Log into your Tailscale admin dashboard. Under the Name servers section, enter the Tailscale node address for the device you installed Pi-hole on.

Magic DNS

Make sure that you do not enable magic DNS. I am fuzzy on what it’s supposed to do, but I have noticed that non-Tailscale traffic doesn’t work when magic DNS is enabled. It’s probably being discussed on this GitHub issue.

In my case, I have two Pi-holes. One on my Raspberry Pi at home, and one on the Google Cloud. As such, the two addresses that I entered on my Tailscale name servers section are 100.112.92.63 and 100.127.221.120.

An image to indicate the DNS name servers settings on the Tailscale website
Name servers entered on my Tailscale account

Once your name servers are added, enable Tailscale on your computer/mobile devices. By doing so, your VPN configuration will be enabled, and all DNS queries will be tunneled to your Pi-hole. This will work even when you are on a mobile network, outside of your house!

Disable private DNS on Android

If you have a private DNS address added on your Android settings, turn it off.

Things to note

One of the things that Tailscale promises is that the Tailscale node address never changes for your device. This ensures that the name servers that you just entered always work, thus not leaving you without a DNS resolver.

Are apps/websites not loading?

It’s possible that you enabled Tailscale on your computer/mobile before adding the Pi-hole’s node address on Tailscale DNS page. In such a case, restart Tailscale on your device and it must fetch the name servers from your admin.

Do not enable Block connections without a VPN setting on your Android VPN settings. Brad explains why here.

You can share your Tailscale node where Pi-hole is running (your Raspberry Pi device or the Linux device) with other Tailscale users. Once they accept the invite, they can add your Tailscale node address as the name server on their DNS page. By doing so, they will get the benefit of your Pi-hole as well.

This is not an open resolver. This Pi-hole DNS resolver will be accessible only by Tailscale nodes on your Tailscale network, and by those that you invite to that device.

Airship! 🚁

The hype is real! The map will be available for free on all platforms.

Among Us wrangler

At Automattic, we are able to pick our own job titles. After hosting a few rounds of Among Us within my team yesterday, I am officially our in-house Among Us wrangler!

Kudos to Apple for privacy-focussed features

I have been using ProtonMail, Signal, DuckDuckGo and SimpleLogin for a fairly long time. These make up an integral part of my online presence, and I cannot go back to a time where these didn’t exist.

Without doubt, I truly enjoy and recommend using privacy-respecting products.

In a recent conference, Tim Cook committed to advancing user privacy by giving them tools to control where their data is shared. Especially in today’s world, it’s important to understand the implications of online data tracking, and it’s necessary to be informed about ways to prevent that. Apple’s recent release of an illustration explaining implications of data tracking will be a great read. While the conclusion of that report focusses on Apple-centric tools to prevent data tracking, the content of the report holds true, that companies profit by monitoring users.

At Apple, we made our choice a long time ago. We believe that ethical technology is technology that works for you. It’s technology that helps you sleep, not keeps you up. It tells you when you’ve had enough, it gives you space to create, or draw, or write or learn, not refresh just one more time. It’s technology that can fade into the background when you’re on a hike or going for a swim but is there to warn you when your heart rate spikes or help you when you’ve had a nasty fall. And with all of this, always, it’s privacy and security first, because no-one needs to trade away the rights of their users to deliver a great product.

Tim Cook at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference, MacRumors

Starting with the next beta release of iOS 14, Apple will be launching a new tool called App Tracking Transparency that will enable users of apps to control sharing of data with app makers. By taking away data tracking functionality within the iOS ecosystem, Apple is definitely making a sizeable dent in businesses that primarily focus on monetizing user data, read Facebook.

An image showing Apple's new App Tracking Transparency feature
Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency feature that will be available in the next beta release of iOS 14

Open-source software like Pi-hole has existed for a while, and recently, online services like NextDNS and AdGuard have emerged that offer similar controls. I am a happy user of these products and services, but I particularly like how Apple is championing this effort.

iOS takes up 50% of the market share in the US, which is Facebook’s largest market. If Facebook is feeling threatened by Apple iOS 14’s new privacy features, we are moving in the right direction.

It’s also worth noting that WhatsApp will be sharing user data with Facebook group of companies. It’s particularly worse for those WhatsApp Business API users as their messages wouldn’t be end-to-end encrypted. Differently put, they will be visible to third-party Business Solutions Providers, including cloud-based version of the API hosted by Facebook:

Some organizations may choose to delegate management of their WhatsApp Business API endpoint to a third-party Business Solution Provider. In these instances, communication still uses the same Signal protocol encryption. However, because the WhatsApp Business API user has chosen a third party to manage their endpoint, WhatsApp does not consider these messages end-to-end encrypted. In the future, in 2021, this will also apply to businesses that choose to leverage the cloud-based version of the API hosted by Facebook.

Gizmodo – This Was WhatsApp’s Plan All Along

On the flip side, Apple is fighting back, highlighting that this will impact small businesses that depend on personalized ads for sales. Facebook also highlights that Apple’s own apps will be exempted from App Tracking Transparency, but it’s not clear if that’s true, based on Apple’s press release.

Other privacy efforts by Apple that I appreciate

In June of 2020, Apple announced support for native encrypted DNS throughout the device. This is a big deal for users like me that have a NextDNS subscription.

In iOS 14 and iPad OS 14, Apple also launched a new App Store functionality, called the privacy nutrition labels. It gives users a quick overview of the apps’ privacy practices — as in, what level of data is obtained by the app, what these details are used for, and also outlines how they may be linked to an individual. Apple’s own apps, like Apple Music, are required to show these labels; they are not exempted.

An image showing the new privacy nutrition labels feature on the Apple App Store
An image showing the new privacy nutrition labels feature on the Apple App Store

If you are not aware, the messaging app Signal collects only your mobile number. It doesn’t link that mobile number to your identity either! If you are a WhatsApp or Telegram user, it’s time to consider switching to Signal.

An image highlighting the data that the messaging app Signal may collect and link to your identity
Signal’s privacy nutrition labels on the App Store

I am keen on seeing where things head from here!