You may have seen the “good luck, I’m behind seven proxies” meme – even if you don’t know what it means. All the data nuts won’t stop talking about proxies and scraping either. But what is a proxy server, and what does it do for you? That’s what you’ll find out in this article.
What is a proxy server?
A proxy server stands in the middle between your device and a website or service on the internet. When you’re connected to it, all the outgoing and incoming data goes through the proxy server. This allows you to modify your connection by changing your IP to that of the server’s. And if you’re the owner of the proxy, you can also run firewalls and even limit access to content.
How does a proxy server work?
A proxy server is a “middleman,” an intermediary server that separates you, the user, from the internet. Without a proxy server, your traffic flows more-or-less directly from your device to the websites. With a proxy server, the traffic goes from your device to the proxy before continuing to your requested URL. Any reply from the website goes back to the proxy server, which forwards it to you.
Think of it as a fancier version of a mail forwarding service – great if you want to obscure your address. Most of the time, it just forwards your mail. But as proxies move away from simple content unblocking, they get sophisticated, compiling the incoming mail before sending it to you to save on shipping. Of course, in the case of proxy servers, no physical parcels are involved (if you’re looking for a technology that not only forwards but also packages and repackages your digital freight for added security, there’s a VPN)!
Why use a proxy server?
There are several types of proxy servers and use cases as they can be configured for a wide variety of roles. For you, a proxy server may allow you to access websites not available in your country. For your boss, the proxy server they set up may also be the reason why you can’t watch Crunchyroll at work.
A proxy server might be closer geographically to you than your destination – or it might be a “reverse proxy,” closer to the website and service, fulfilling a task it needs, like managing visitor flows.
But if you’re purposefully connecting to a proxy server, why? Here are several reasons why you’d want to do that.
Bypass restrictions: oh no, your school or workplace doesn’t allow you to access some great websites or services via the internet; what can you do? Well, you can connect to a proxy server. That way, the firewall at your work/school will see you connecting to the proxy server, not kittens247.com. And if the system isn’t told to block the proxy connection, it will allow any traffic between you without any issues. It works in a similar way when it comes to country-wide censorship as well.
Privatize your streaming: If you want to stay private even when streaming, you can use a proxy to do that. However, make sure it’s an encrypted proxy. A free one will do nothing for your security and privacy!
Improve online security: From individual users to corporations, a proxy can act as a firewall defending against malicious attacks online. And on the most basic level, it can keep you more secure by obscuring your IP – your device’s address online. If you don’t personally identify yourself, nobody will know it was you who visited the website!
Control internet usage: this mostly matters to companies or others who set up their own proxies rather than streaming fans. If you control the proxy, you can ban some web addresses to keep your kids, employees, or whoever uses the network running through the proxy from going where you don’t want them to go.
Improve speed, save bandwidth: another use more interesting for companies than people is having proxy servers cache (save) copies of frequently accessed websites. Additionally, if five users visit the same web page, the server can ping it once and then dole out the information to the five users, lessening the network load.
Now that you know the why of using a proxy server, it’s time to learn about the why not.
What are the risks of using a proxy server?
There are tradeoffs to using proxy servers, when compared to VPNs. The two main issues are:
Free proxies are shady: if you only want to use a proxy to access more websites, you’ll surely be tempted by free proxies. However, you should resist that temptation – free proxies have to make their money somehow. That method might be collecting and selling your metadata – or outright stealing your data.
There’s a distinct lack of security: most proxies don’t encrypt your traffic, so using them does nothing to defend you against people eavesdropping on your internet habits. At the same time, proxies are usually not secured against leaking your IP – which, among other things, allows websites to discover where you’re connecting from.
If you compare a proxy to a VPN (which we will do shortly), it doesn’t seem as secure as a VPN. And as you see, it has security issues even in a vacuum. But for users looking for the simplest way to overcome the easiest website blocking, it can still work.
What are the different types of proxy servers?
This question has two very different answers: one is about types of proxy servers, the other is about proxy server protocols. Let’s start with the types of proxy servers:
- Reverse proxy: you don’t know you’re connecting to one, but it has the power to collect the data you need from several websites before returning it to you – kind of like “combined shipping” for the web.
- Web proxy server: acting as a load balancer, it spreads incoming requests over several servers to keep the service up. That way, a big influx of requests doesn’t crash the server.
- Anonymous proxy: hides your original IP address, but not the fact that a proxy is in use.
- High anonymity proxy: hides both the original IP and the fact that you’re using a proxy.
- Transparent proxy: chances are that your boss is running one of those. This kind of proxy doesn’t modify your online requests, but it can monitor what you do. It can also be used to restrict access to websites your boss doesn’t want you to visit.
- CGI proxy: this technology connects to a proxy via a website. You go to a CGI proxy website, enter the address of another website into the web form, and the proxy website then displays it for you. It’s like a browser within a browser.
- Suffix proxy: this proxy adds its own suffix to the website’s address to overcome firewall filters… However, modern filters can usually block it.
- Distorting proxy: it will identify itself as a proxy server but give a false IP address of the client if asked.
- DNS proxy: you’ll most often encounter “DNS proxy” as a service that only routes your traffic via a proxy for specific purposes, like accessing websites.
Now, aside from these types of proxy servers, there are also proxy protocols – sets of digital communication rules defining the way they are configured:
- SSL: Secure Sockets Layer is a proxy protocol used to protect your data during transmission, such as when you make a transaction during an online purchase.
- FTP: File Transfer Protocol proxy is used when you’re uploading data to a server, such as when you upload your pictures to the cloud or add music files to online music services. An FTP proxy can offer enhanced security for your uploaded files.
- HTTP: a hypertext transfer protocol proxy caches web pages and files so that you can access them faster on sites that you visit frequently. But if the cache builds up too much, it can ultimately slow down your browsing, so it is recommended that you clear your cache on a regular basis.
- SOCKS: often upgraded with additional security measures to make it undetectable, SOCKS communicates to the proxy server on a level lower than HTTP to overcome firewalls. Famously a part of the Shadowsocks protocol.
Are proxy servers legal?
Yes, but they should not be used for illegal practices, such as illegally downloading copyrighted material. Some uses of proxy servers aren’t allowed under the laws of certain countries. However, as long as you stick to the accepted uses of proxies, you can use them completely legally.
The same goes for VPN use as well. Surfshark does not encourage using a VPN in any way that would potentially violate the law or Terms of Service of other service providers.
Is a VPN a proxy?
A VPN – a virtual private network – is not a proxy. They are similar in that both technologies involve online middlemen, but there are key differences between the two.
What are the main differences between a VPN and a proxy?
Routes your browser traffic
Routes all the traffic on your device
Can hide your IP
Hides your IP by virtue of working
May have encryption
Proxies: good, but not the best
A proxy is a good tool to divert your traffic, but it lacks the robustness and security of a VPN. It doesn’t always hide your IP or rarely encrypts your data. If you’re already looking into a technology that routes your data via a middle man, why not check out a VPN? It does that – and a lot more.