Proxy server or VPN, which is best?
Proxy servers are a very useful way of browsing the internet whilst staying anonymous and keeping your location hidden from the wider world. On the other hand, VPNs change your entire device’s IP and keep all of your internet traffic anonymous.
How does a proxy server differ from a VPN?
A proxy server differs from a VPN, in that the proxy user connects to the internet via a server made available by a proxy provider, although VPNs often also offer the two services in conjunction or as mutually exclusive product packages. It’s known as a proxy because it still provides a middleman service.
The differences and advantages between VPNs and proxies are dependent on the use case:
- VPNs are better protected than proxies in terms of encryption;
- VPN’s can be installed to protect an entire machine or device (for example all the browsers thereon and the email client(s);
- Proxies are limited to the individual agent in use at the time – e.g. the browser, the headless browser*, software etc;
- Proxies are therefore slightly less secure than VPNs but offer the ability to run in multiple threads and integrate with third party tools.
*Headless browsers are web browsers that don’t have a graphical interface but display hypertext markup language (HTML) in a command line interface. They are used for testing web pages as they render and understand code in the same way that a graphical browser would but provide a ‘uniform’ experience of how any browser would see the content. In effect, if a web page works correctly in a headless browser, it will work in any browser on any device.
Many people become confused over the difference between virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers, also when and how they should be used.
Let’s examine the features and functionality of each in turn, enabling users to make the right choices.
First of all, definitions. A VPN provides an encrypted middleman server between the user’s device and their connection to their internet service provider (ISP). Without a VPN, the user’s home or office router would connect to the ISP, and in turn the ISP looks up the target online service or website and makes the connection.
Some ISPs keep a log (albeit anonymized) and sell the data thereon to advertisers, for example, how many people in a given post code or zip code area visited Amazon during a given time period, and what did they search for. This business intelligence makes a lucrative income for ISPs, but they don’t share that profit with the people who provide it.
By using a VPN, the connection to the ISP is anonymized and encrypted, so the ISP doesn’t know who or where the connection is coming from. This also helps the VPN user immensely in several different ways:
Advantages and use cases of a VPN
Avoiding throttling on your entire machine – Some ISPs deliberately slow down the connections from users to streaming and gaming platforms for two main reasons; firstly if a particular area is putting an onerous load onto their network (maybe a large sporting event or such like) or if individual users are very data hungry. In the latter case, a household might consist of three people working from home (WFH), each in the creative industries and consuming large amounts of data or gaming. In this case, the ISP can throttle that connection to make the data transfer virtually unusable.
But if households are using a VPN on each device (or in some cases applied to the router), the ISP doesn’t know where the data load is coming from, nor which user account(s) is/are affected. As a result, they can’t throttle a connection they can’t effectively ‘find’.
Avoidance of geo-restricted content
Many streaming platforms from Netflix to the UK’s BBC iPlayer restrict the content they make available to geographic regions. Netflix in the US is only available to US residents – likewise in the UK, only UK internet protocol (IP) addresses can access the iPlayer. But by using a VPN, users can simply choose a server in their country of choice, and the target platform ‘sees’ an IP address in an allowed location. Problem solved!
Saving money by navigating dynamic pricing
Many online retailers of both physical and virtual goods and services offer different prices for the same item or service, depending upon customer socio-economic demographics. Many of these retailers emphatically deny that this goes on, however the practice still seems to occur.
Put simply, if you try to book a flight or hotel room and your IP address is located in a prosperous area, some service providers display a higher price than if the user appeared to be located somewhere less affluent. So if your IP address places you in the center of Paris or London, you’re going to pay more for that flight than if your location is in the suburbs of Mexico city. Again, by choosing a server from which to access the internet via your VPN, you can elect to be sitting in Mexico when you’re really in Manhattan.
Keeping under the radar from surveillance and hacking
It might sound slightly paranoic and conspiracy-theorist, but if you are a political activist, or maybe an active trades-union member, it is possible that government agencies or police might be monitoring your internet activity, emails and online traffic. They do this by contacting your ISP, which is bound by law in many countries to hand over records and even allow the authorities’ access by real-time surveillance.
However, if you use a VPN, again your ISP cannot identify your account, and your connection to the internet is encrypted anyway, so snoopers can’t tap into your activities. This same encryption technology keeps you invisible from hackers who might attempt to install malware or ransomware, so you’re protected from both the cops and the robbers!
In summary, if you’re a private individual using the internet for domestic and pleasure purposes, a VPN is probably the best security solution to avoid all the possible issues mentioned earlier, such as data throttling and dynamic pricing when online shopping.
But if you run a business, then it’s probably wise to use a VPN for the security aspects of your activities, and a proxy server for other activities such as an online shop.
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