A proxy, or proxy server, is a computer that stands in between the user and the internet. The user sends all their online traffic to the proxy server. The server, in turn, sends your data on to its destination on the internet. With a proxy, the identity and location of the user remain (partly) hidden. In practice, proxies are mostly used by people who want to visit a site that has been blocked in a certain region. Many companies and businesses also use proxies to create a closed-off business network.
A proxy has several advantages, but also comes with some drawbacks. Therefore, it’s often better to use a VPN. In this article, we’ll provide more information about the workings of a proxy, different kinds of proxies, and how safe they are.
How does a proxy work?
A proxy server stands between a local computer or a local network and a wider network (usually the internet). A proxy is often an external server; it’s an extra step in the online process. Without a proxy server, your data travels along the following route: when you type a website into your address bar and press enter, the information goes from your computer through your internet service provider’s (ISP) router first. Then it continues to the server of the site you requested. The site’s reply is sent back along the same route.
If you use a proxy server, the path from your computer to the website is a little different. The user (meaning you) connects to the proxy server, for example with a computer, laptop or smartphone. The proxy server sends your request on to its destination on the internet. The rest of the web won’t be able to see your IP address, but the IP of the proxy. The image below illustrates this process.
In short, a proxy sends on data. That’s not the only thing it can do, however. A proxy can provide you with an extra layer of online protection. There are even different kinds of proxies that each have their own special functions. There are webproxies, which work within your browser, but you could also install a proxy on your router, so all your data traffic automatically goes through the proxy. We’ll tell you some more about the different functions of proxy servers in the next section of this article.
Something to keep in mind: most proxy servers won’t protect your data and privacy well enough for you to remain safe and anonymous online. Therefore, we’d advise you to consider a VPN-connection. A VPN ensures your online anonimity and protection. The VPN provider below is especially cheap and works extremely well. It’s safe, secure, and very user-friendly.
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Different kinds of proxies
There are different kinds of proxy servers. First of all, one could divide them into proxies for one user or one group of users and public proxies used by huge groups of people. With the latter, it’s much harder for other parties to figure out which data belongs to which user, since so many are using the same IP.
Proxies can also be divided into different groups based on their specific functions. Some of these different functions include:
- Caching web proxies
- Filtering proxies
- CGI proxies
- Reverse proxies
Aside from that, proxies can be categorized according to the level of privacy they offer. This results in the following classifications:
- Transparent proxies
- Anonymous proxies
- High anonymity proxies
Caching web proxy
Caching proxies are used quite frequently. This kind of proxy keeps a copy of websites you’ve visited. With a caching proxy, pages are delivered to users more quickly and in a more secure way. When someone requests to see a website through a caching proxy, the proxy will first search its local files (its cache). If the website has already been saved to the cache, the proxy sends this data directly to the user. If the proxy hasn’t saved the website yet, it’ll collect the information from the right server and send it back to the user. A copy of the website will then be saved for future use.
A proxy’s cache has a certain life span, after which it’s emptied. Deleting cache data usually happens based on how old said data is, its size, and the frequency with which it’s requested. Two simple cache algorithms are Least Recently Used (LRU) and Least Frequently Used (LFU).
Some web proxies are also able to filter the content of web pages. Some internet restrictions and certain types of online censorship, such as the state-controlled censorship in China, are implemented through web proxies. These proxies limit the parts of the internet that users can reach.
Other filtering web proxies might adjust pages to a certain goal or audience. This is what happens when you’re automatically sent on to the mobile version of a website while on your phone or tablet. Moreover, ISP’s use these proxies to shield their connection from computer viruses and other malicious content. In short: a filtering web proxy blocks certain content. This could limit your internet freedom, but also increase your internet safety.
A reverse proxy works in the opposite way of a normal proxy server. Instead of protecting the data of the surfing internet user, this kind of proxy works to the advantage of the web server. A reverse proxy can be used as a firewall to protect the server’s online data. Access to certain specific pages can be granted or denied with the proxy. This way, clients from a bank won’t accidentally find themselves on the online bank environment of a stranger. Reverse proxies are also often used to cache static pages, so the server doesn’t become overloaded as quickly.
A special type of web proxy is a CGI proxy. This is an online proxy shaped like a website, with which a visitor can get instant access to a specific other page. These websites/proxies usually use PHP or CGI in order to function. CGI proxies can give access to websites that are blocked by schools, businesses, or even governments. Because they also hide the IP address of the user, they’re occasionally used to obtain a certain level of anonymity.
Aside from grouping proxies according to their function, you can also divide them based on how much they help you stay anonymous on the internet. A transparent proxy doesn’t hide the IP address of the user. They announce themselves to be proxy servers and even show websites the original IP address of the user. These proxies are usually caching proxies, which aren’t used to stay anonymous online.
This kind of proxy identifies itself as a proxy server, but does not show the original IP address of the user. Anonymous proxies offer a certain amount of protection to their users. It isn’t possible to use an anonymous proxy while watching Netflix. Netflix will know you’re using a proxy and won’t grant you access to their content.
High anonymity proxy
This type of proxy does not reveal that they’re a proxy server. It also doesn’t show the IP of the user. It’s completely invisible for websites, while a ‘normal’ anonymous proxy is detectable. A high anonymity proxy comes closest to a VPN when it comes to anonymity. However, it still misses the online safety and security that comes with a VPN.
Benefits of using a proxy server
Using a proxy server comes with several advantages. For example, proxies can influence your internet speed and online safety. Besides that, many proxies have other advantages: you can use one to blacklist websites or to circumvent other proxies and online blocks. Finally, some proxies hide your IP address. Read more about all of these benefits below.
Caching proxy servers keep a file of the websites you visit. This can significantly speed up your browsing: you don’t have to re-download pages that have already been accessed, which saves time. Moreover, it saves bandwidth while you’re surfing.
Proxy servers are also used to scan websites for malicious code. These dangerous parts of websites can then be blocked. In this way a proxy creates an extra layer of security between you and the harmful code on the website you’re visiting. Any chance of a virus or other digital infection becomes significantly smaller. However, a proxy server doesn’t protect you against all malware, as we’ll explain in more depth later on.
Proxy servers allow you to blacklist certain websites. This way, no one using the server is able to access those sites. For example, a school or company might use a proxy so students and employees can’t go on Facebook during school or work time. Besides posing restrictions, a proxy also allows you to look into the browser history of every computer connected to the proxy’s network. All traffic through the proxy server can be logged and analyzed by the people in control, such as your boss or ISP.
Hide your IP address
Many people don’t want websites and companies to track them online – and for good reason. It’s no one else’s business what you do online. Using a proxy helps you mask your online identity, because it hides your IP address (unless you use a transparent proxy). Other parties will only see the proxy’s IP. Cloaking your IP address means your online privacy is better protected: websites won’t be able to track your online behavior and make a profile on you. With a proxy, you’re giving away less information about yourself to websites and other parties. If you don’t want any personalized ads to show up in your browser, a proxy server can help you achieve this – up to a certain point.
Bypass another proxy
Finally, a proxy server can be used to bypass the restrictions of online blocking or even another proxy server. As mentioned earlier, a company or a government can block certain content on their proxy servers. By connecting to this website through your own proxy server, you can easily bypass those restrictions. Want to access a news website that has been blocked in your current location? Use a good proxy and you’re well on your way.
Even streaming services such as Hulu can occasionally be reached with a proxy. These websites often change and limit their available content depending on your geographical location. Try watching a video on BBC iPlayer when you aren’t in the UK. You’ll automatically get an error telling you that the service isn’t available to you. When you use a good anonymous British proxy server, however, you often will be able to watch these videos. For many services, however, using a proxy won’t be enough. A number of streaming platforms are actively trying to ward off proxies. That’s why Netflix almost always gives an error when you try to watch it through a proxy.
Cons of a proxy server
Unfortunately, proxies also have several disadvantages. These mostly have to do with the fact that a proxy is usually only half a solution: it doesn’t offer complete online anonymity or safety. We’ll explain this claim in more detail in the following sections.
No complete anonymity
Private users of proxy servers are typically concerned with keeping their browsing habits private and securing their personal information. However, a proxy server has the ability to log all information the user sends and receives. Your boss, for example, can easily see everything you do using the business network (which is often arranged via a proxy). Moreover, he or she can keep tabs on how much time employees spend on certain websites. So be warned: your boss knows exactly when you’ve been buying new shoes on Amazon when you should’ve been working.
In short, a proxy doesn’t protect your data traffic from all onlookers. Especially free online proxies come with big risks: nine out of ten times, you have no idea who controls the proxy connection, so you can never be sure as to whether your data is actually safe. All your online traffic is sent right into the hands of a stranger. Do you wish to have full online privacy? Then a proxy is not the right choice.
Similarly, a proxy server cannot guarantee your online safety. Usually, when you use a proxy, it isn’t possible to trace your data traffic back to you, which means you have a certain amount of anonymity. However, none of this data is encrypted. This means that websites can still see what you do online, even though they can’t connect that activity to your real IP address.
Your IP address could be leaked
A proxy isn’t a solid solution to online tracking. With some proxies, it’s relatively easy for just about anyone to find out what your actual IP address is. If that happens, you miss out on a lot of the advantages of a proxy. You’ll be a lot more vulnerable on the internet.
In short: the pros and cons of a proxy server
|Possibly quicker connection||No complete anonymity|
|Certain protection against malicious code||No encryption|
|Possibility to block content||Your IP address could be leaked|
|Hiding your real IP address||Not all blocked pages can be unlocked|
|Circumventing other proxies or online blocking|
Is a proxy server safe?
If you want to use a proxy server to stay anonymous while surfing the web, you’ll have to take into account a lot of different factors. In most cases, it’s much safer and much more practical to use a VPN server instead of a proxy.
Your proxy should be configured correctly
Only a well-configured proxy server will offer you a decent level of privacy. Configuring a server can be quite complicated and isn’t always up to you. The proxy’s owner has to be competent and use the proper knowledge when setting up the proxy. Only then will you know for sure your server has been configured the right way. Aside from that, the server has to be maintained properly. Many (free) proxy servers don’t enjoy this luxury. Without proper maintenance and configuration, chances are your IP address will be leaked, either purposefully or accidentally.
Who owns the proxy server?
Another important factor is the owner of the proxy. It’s vital that they have good intentions. Many (often free) proxy servers are owned by malicious parties that are after your personal data or want to make money through ads. Keeping a proxy server running is costly and most owners attempt to earn a bit of money by selling (private) user data, adding advertisements to web pages, or spreading malware and viruses through their servers.
Does the proxy allow for HTTPS?
Using a secure connection is extremely important. A proxy server does not encrypt your internet connection. Without extra protection, it’s quite easy for strangers, hackers, and governments to eavesdrop on the connection and steal your private data, such as your email address and login information. To prevent this, it helps to use the secure version of websites (the HTTPS version). A lot of proxies don’t allow the use of HTTPS and, therefore, take away an essential layer of online security. Do pay attention to the fact that websites with HTTPS aren’t always completely safe. HTTPS only means that the connection between you and the website has been established in a secure way. The website itself, however, could still be dangerous. You could, for example, find yourself on the HTTPS version of a phishing website.
Proxy or VPN
To sum it all up, a proxy isn’t completely anonymous, nor is it 100% safe. That’s why it’s almost always better to use a VPN instead. In essence, a VPN redirects your data traffic in the same way a proxy does. On top of that, a VPN encrypts your data, which makes it the safer option of the two. The chances of a VPN leaking your IP address are extremely slim, especially when you use the VPN’s kill switch. Moreover, VPN connections are often much faster than proxies. Especially for anonymous browsing and downloading, a VPN is therefore the better option. If you want the most secure protection for your online data, you might even want to combine your VPN with a good antivirus program.
Most VPNs don’t log any customer information or data. Even so, it’s important to only work with trustworthy VPN services. Some providers promised not to save any user information, but turned out to be doing so anyway. A good example of a decent VPN that doesn’t pull stunts like this is ExpressVPN. That’s partly why this premium VPN ended up at number 1 in our top 5 of best VPN providers.
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Proxies redirect your internet connection via a – usually external – server. A proxy could improve the speed of your internet connection. Moreover, it can help you get around online restrictions and censorship. Finally, a proxy helps you browse the internet somewhat anonymously. However, the protection is far from great. Moreover, the owner of the proxy probably logs your user information. If you value your online privacy and security, you’re much better off with a VPN.