What is a proxy server?
A proxy server is a ‘middleman’ server that provides a gateway between any internet connected device and the internet. Whenever a user visits a website or checks their email via the internet, the data traffic goes through the proxy server first, before reaching the intended destination.
The significant benefits of using a proxy server include:
Geo-restriction avoidance: Some online content, such as streaming services like Netflix and many others may restrict their content to specific regions or countries. This is usually for copyright and contractual reasons with program providers. But by using a proxy server located in a permitted region, users can access that content as if they were located in the permitted area. This can be as restrictive as state by state in the US, a country wide – for example the BBC’s UK flagship streaming service the iPlayer is only available to IP addresses located in the UK.
Content Filtering: As well as circumventing restrictions,HTTP proxy servers can also be configured to impose them. This is sometimes a technique used in schools and workplace environments, for example, so that people can’t access social media while they are supposed to be working.
Privacy and Anonymity: A proxy server can hide a user’s IP addresses from any websites they might access. Consequently, the target website detects the IP address location of the proxy server, helping users to keep their identity and location private.
Security: Proxy servers can effectively act as an additional firewall between a device and the wider internet, to guard against the surreptitious installation of malware, spyware and such like. Proxy servers can be configured to block individual or potentially virus-carrying websites, such as pornography sites. This can prevent hacks and cyber-attacks, thus adding an extra layer of security to the network.
Load Balancing: In corporate server environments or very busy large websites such as major travel booking sites or e-commerce portals, proxy servers can share data traffic cross a system of multiple servers. This is called ‘load balancing’, which helps to take the strain off overloading a solitary server.
Caching: Proxy servers can keep copies of frequently accessed websites, effectively loading the copies to reduce bandwidth traffic and speed up the user’s browsing experience.
What’s the difference between a proxy server and a VPN?
Whilst they’re often used in conjunction with each other, there are some crucial differences between proxies servers and VPNs:
Encryption – proxy servers don’t always provide encryption as a matter of course. They can still hide their user’s IP address, but the data traffic is not necessarily encrypted. A VPN encrypts the traffic between its users and servers, thereby offering a higher level of security.
Compatibility –proxy servers are often quicker, easier to set up, and can be used with various devices and operating systems. Proxies can be installed directly into computer applications, whereas a VPN is often installed as a browser extension. A VPN extension will therefore cut the connection between the browser in use and the device if malicious activity is detected, but the device itself might remain connected to the internet.
This can be helpful if, for example, you were using Chrome to do some online shopping and Safari to download a Mac OS update. If Chrome’s VPN extension were to disconnect itself due to a perceived security threat, the OS update download wouldn’t be interrupted.
Do VPNS use proxy servers?
Some VPN providers can offer hybrid benefits that combine the features of a regular VPN with the additional advantages of proxy servers. A VPN provider might allow a browser extension that acts as a proxy for specific applications or websites but retains the usual VPN client for all other internet traffic.
In short, most VPN providers offer hybrid services, proxies, and regular VPN extensions as complementary yet interrelated services.
Are proxy servers safe to use?
In general, the short answer is ‘yes’. But like everything else, precautions should be taken. Just as you wouldn’t pour boiling water from a kettle into a mug a few inches from a sleeping baby, you should use VPNs and proxies with a little common-sense application.
Veracity – again, just as you wouldn’t allow access to your home for an unexpected caller claiming to be from the water company, who has no ID, a scrappy rusty white van, and he’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt; neither should you use a VPN Changer provider that hasn’t got good reviews from software recommendation sites, etc.
Malware and online security – coming back to the point above, ensuring that your VPN / proxy server provider is reputable will ensure that you’re not connecting to proxy servers provided by cyber-criminals.
Geo-restricted content – as proxy servers may allow you to access geo-blocked content; this could well be against those websites’ and platforms’ terms and conditions. If the website operators managed to identify you from the proxy server, you could have an IP block put on your connection. However, that scenario is highly unlikely as anonymity is one of the major advantages of VPNs and proxies in any case.