What is a proxy and what does VPN stand for? What is the difference between a proxy and a VPN? A proxy connects you to a remote computer, and a VPN connects you to a remote computer, so they should be more or less the same, right? Not exactly.
Let’s take a look at when you want to use each proxy-store, and why proxies are a poor substitute for VPNs.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PROXY AND A VPN?
Choosing the right tool is critical
Almost every week there’s a big news story about encryption, data breaches, intercepts, or other digital privacy issues.
Many of these articles talk about the importance of improving the security of your Internet connection, such as using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) when you’re on a public coffee shop Wi-Fi, but they often skim over the details.
How exactly do the proxies and VPN connections we keep hearing actually work?
If you’re going to invest time and energy into improving your security, you want to be sure you’re choosing the right tool for the right job.
Although they are fundamentally different, VPNs and proxies have one thing in common: they both make it look like you’re connecting to the Internet from a different location.
However, how they accomplish this task and the degree to which they offer privacy, encryption, and other features varies dramatically.
Proxies hide your IP address
A proxy server is a server that acts as an intermediary in the flow of your internet traffic so that your online activity appears to originate from a different location.
Say, for example, that you are physically located in New York City and you want to log in to a website that is geographically restricted to people located in the United Kingdom.
You can connect to a proxy server located in the UK and then connect to that website.
The traffic from your browser appears to come from a remote computer, not yours.
Proxies are ideal for performing low-stakes tasks such as watching restricted YouTube videos, bypassing simple content filters, or circumventing IP-based restrictions.
On the other hand, proxy servers are not that great for high-stakes tasks.
Proxy servers only hide their IP address and act as a mute man in the middle of your internet traffic.
They don’t encrypt your traffic between your computer and the proxy server, they don’t typically strip identifying information from your transmissions beyond simple IP padding, and there are no additional privacy or security considerations.
Anyone with access to the data stream (your ISP, your government, the guy sniffing Wi-Fi traffic at the airport, etc.) can intercept your traffic.
This makes proxy servers unsuitable for serious tasks, such as preventing the operator of a criminal Wi-Fi hotspot from stealing your data.
Finally, proxy server connections are configured on an application basis, not on the computer.
You don’t configure your entire computer to connect to a proxy server.
You configure your web browser, your BitTorrent client, or another proxy-compatible program.
This is great if you want a single application to connect to a proxy (like our voting scheme above), but not so great if you want to redirect your full internet connection.
The two most common proxy server protocols are HTTP and SOCKS.
The oldest type of proxy, HTTP proxies are designed specifically for web traffic.
You connect the proxy server to your browser’s configuration file (or use a browser extension if your browser doesn’t support proxies), and all web traffic is routed through the remote proxy server.
If you are using an HTTP proxy to connect to any sensitive service, such as email or a bank, this is so critical You are using an SSL-enabled browser and connecting to a website that supports SSL encryption.
As we mentioned above, proxies don’t encrypt any traffic, so the only encryption you get when using them is the encryption you provide yourself.
The SOCKS proxy system is a useful extension of the HTTP proxy system because SOCKS is indifferent to the type of traffic that passes through it.
Where HTTP proxies can only handle web traffic, a SOCKS server will simply pass any traffic it receives, regardless of whether it is traffic for a web server, FTP server, or BitTorrent client.
In fact, in our article on protecting your BitTorrent traffic, we recommend using BTGuard, an anonymizing SOCKS proxy service based out of Canada.
The disadvantage of SOCKS proxies is that they are slower than HTTP proxies because they have more overhead and, like HTTP proxies, they do not offer encryption other than what you personally apply to a given connection.
How to choose a proxy server
When it comes to choosing a proxy, it comes at a cost… well, a cost. Although the Internet is flooded with thousands of free proxy servers, they are almost universally flaky with poor uptime.
Such services may be great for a one-time job that takes a few minutes (and isn’t particularly sensitive), but you really shouldn’t rely on free proxies of unknown origin for anything more important.
If you know what you’re getting into in terms of quality and privacy, you can find heaps of free proxies on Proxy4Free, a well-registered proxy database.
While there are standalone commercial services such as the aforementioned BTGuard, the increase in speed of computers and mobile devices combined with faster connections (both of which reduce the impact of encryption overhead) has largely rendered proxy largely obsolete as more and more people opt to use superior VPN solutions.
Encrypt your connection
Virtual private networks, such as proxies, make your traffic appear as if it’s coming from a remote IP address.
But that’s where the similarities end.
VPNs are configured at the operating system level, and a VPN connection captures the full network connection of the device on which it is configured.
This means that unlike a proxy server, which simply acts as a server for an average of one application (such as a web browser or BitTorrent client), a VPN will capture traffic from every application on your computer, from your web browser for online gaming, even Windows Update running in the background.
Hope now you know what is the difference between a proxy and a VPN.