VPN vs. Proxy: What’s the Difference?
More than a quarter of internet users ages 16 through 64 use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) according to a recent GlobalWebIndex survey. In addition to the professional use-case of connecting to a corporate network remotely, VPN has many other benefits.
Many users leverage VPNs to access news and social media sites restricted by censorship or geographical restrictions. Others use VPNs to help them stay private on the Internet. However, VPNs aren't the only means of masking your identity on the web. Proxy servers are another means to achieve some level of anonymity and some of the benefits of a VPN.
This is where it gets tricky. Most people understand that hiding your IP address is generally good practice. That part is simple, but knowing the right tool for the job requires some background. Both VPNs and proxy servers mask your IP address by making it appear your connection is coming from somewhere else. However, that's about all they have in common.
Let's cover the differences between a proxy server and VPN, their pros and cons, and get you up to speed on how to make the right decision for your needs.
Understanding Proxy Servers
A proxy server is basically an application between you and the internet (e.g. a computer) that hides your IP address. With this, you can mask the activity to make it appear as if it was originating from a different location. This could be useful when you're trying to access region-locked content while remaining anonymous online. However, a proxy will not encrypt your data, meaning it will not increase security if there are packet sniffers or similar threats on a network.
Anyone looking for activity on a public network (like a coffee shop or the airport) could access your data. This usually makes proxy servers most useful when working on less important or non-critical activities. In other words, it might be a good idea to avoid online banking while running off a public network.
A lot of proxy servers tend to be free, which means many people will have access to these. If too many people are accessing proxy servers, you could experience very slow connection speeds while using these free services. This doesn't mean there aren't good options for free proxy servers, but because they're free, you need to pick secure and reliable ones.
All this being said, not all proxies are the same. The most common proxies you'll find are either HTTP proxies or SOCKS proxies. Figuring out which one is best for you will depend on what type of activity you're doing that would require a proxy.
HTTP Proxy vs. SOCKS Proxy
As the name implies, HTTP proxies are designed for use with HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). This is the oldest of the proxy server options, and only hides your web browser traffic. If you're looking for something that will maintain anonymity while browsing the web, this might be a good quick option.
While an HTTP proxy intercepts web-based traffic, a SOCKS proxy doesn't care what type of traffic is passing through. This makes it possible to filter out other types of traffic, opening up the type of traffic to other protocols. This is great if you're looking to mask other traffic like FTP or BitTorrent activity. However, you can stick to an HTTP proxy if you're just looking for web-based traffic.
Advantages of a Proxy Server
A proxy server can be useful if you're looking for an extra layer between you and the web, or accessing geo-restricted sites. However, this doesn't provide you with any encryption, which means you won't get any additional encryption besides what you've already used to protect yourself.
So, what are the pros of a proxy server?
Hide your IP address
Access region-locked services
Helps get around web restrictions
Plenty of free options making them easily available on the spot
Disadvantages of a Proxy Server
Free doesn't mean good, the host of the proxy server can see all your activity
You're vulnerable to malware and viruses from an unsecure host
Does not encrypt your traffic
Connection speeds can suffer with more traffic from other users
What is a VPN?
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) not only hides your IP address, it makes it appear like it's coming from somewhere else. VPNs also encrypt your connection in a secure tunnel. Compared to proxies, this is a significant shift. Proxies are typically limited to an application, like adding it to your web browser's configuration.
As long as the VPN is running, all traffic on the computer is going through this connection. This means when you're on a business trip, you can stay productive without having to worry about who might be watching. The increased security makes this the better option for those using these public networks to access information.
You'll still be able to access region-locked information content as well. Similar to a proxy server, you can make your IP address appear as if it's coming from a different country. This will allow you to access content back home when you're visiting another country.
Are There Free Options for VPN?
While free options do exist, you'll need to do proper research to see what the host will do with your information. You might end up agreeing to let them share your data with third-party sites. This means they'll make up the cost of running the VPN by selling your activity information, which effectively defeats the purpose of using a VPN in the first place.
If you decide to go for a free option, make sure you use a reputable service — one that is open with its policies and has no malicious intent.
The Advantages of Using a VPN
Here's a quick look at the key benefits of VPNs.
Hides your IP address
Increased security by encrypting data
Access region-locked services
Automated software that will make sure you remain anonymous with any online activity
Use public Wi-Fi securely
The Disadvantages of Using a VPN
While using a VPN is usually as a good thing, there are a few downsides you should be aware of.
You'll likely have to pay for a good service (usually only a few dollars)
You could see increased latency on your connection going through a VPN
Security is only as reliable as the VPN service you're using
Deciding on a VPN or Proxy
Selecting the right tool for the job is extremely important. You wouldn't change a flat tire with a pipe wrench. So, why would you pick a service without understanding what it's doing? The same holds true in the world of internet privacy.
If you're looking for something that will provide extra security while working off public Wi-Fi, a proxy server isn't for you. However, if all you're looking for is something that will help you remain anonymous and access geo-restricted content, a proxy server might be all you need.
If you need something that will provide an extra layer of protection, a VPN might be exactly what you're looking for. For only a few bucks a month you can hide activity from your computer and provide peace of mind. While connecting to a VPN will generally slow down your speed a little the added security generally makes it worth it.
No matter what option you decide to go with, make sure to research the provider. These tools are very useful but the last thing you want is your VPN disconnecting when working with very sensitive information. Pick a reputable service that will let you maintain anonymity with reliability.
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