You may have seen the “good luck, I’m behind seven proxies” meme, even if you don’t know what it means. At the same time, you hear privacy nuts endlessly talking about proxies and scraping. But what is a proxy server, and what does it do for you? That’s what you’ll find out in this article.
Table of contents
What is a proxy server?
The simplest proxy definition is to represent someone else. And in this case, another server represents your device on the internet.
When you browse the internet, the browser uses your internet protocol (IP) address to send requests to every server it contacts. Judging by your IP address, a person can tell what region you’re from, build a profile depending on your browsing habits (just by tracking your IP), and restrict your access to parts of the internet. That is, to say the least.
A proxy server acts like an intermediary between your device and a website on the internet. When you’re connected to a proxy server, all the outgoing and incoming data (requests mentioned earlier as well) go through the proxy server. Your IP is replaced with the proxy server’s, making every online system ”think” that you’re connecting from the server, not your device.
How does a proxy server work?
A proxy server acts as an intermediary server that separates you 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 web server. Any reply from the website goes back to the proxy server, which forwards it to you.
For people like me who enjoy a simple and clear “Explain it to me like I’m five” Michael Scott explanation.
Here’s how a proxy server normally works:
- You enter a website’s address into your browser;
- The proxy server receives your request;
- The proxy server forwards the request to the web server you’re trying to reach;
- The web server sends a response (website data) back to the proxy server;
- The proxy server forwards the response to you.
Think of it as a fancier version of a mail forwarding service, which is normally great if you want to hide your real address.
Most of the time, the forwarding service just forwards your mail. But as proxies move away from simple content unblocking, they get sophisticated, and their function changes, like (back to the mail metaphor) 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 (Virtual Private Network)!
Why use a proxy server?
Proxy servers have different uses for different users. For you, a proxy server may allow you to access websites not available in your country. For your boss, the proxy server is a way to stop you from streaming Crunchyroll at work.
A proxy server might be closer geographically to you than your destination. Reverse proxies do exist, and they’re called that because they exist closer to the website or service, fulfilling a task it needs, like managing visitor flows.
Here are several reasons to use a proxy server.
If your school or workplace blocks the IP addresses of fun things, 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. If the proxy isn’t blocked itself, your request will go through.
Anonymize your streaming
If you want to stay private even when streaming (as much as possible if you’re a paying subscriber for a streaming service), you can use a proxy. However, make sure it’s an encrypted proxy. A free proxy will do nothing for your security and privacy!
Improve online security
From individual users to corporations, a proxy can act as a firewall to defend 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 (esp. when using an internal network), 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 instead of a VPN?
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 (just like free VPNs) 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 from people (like your internet service provider) eavesdropping on your internet activities. At the same time, proxies are usually not secured against leaking your IP address — which, among other things, allows websites to discover where you’re connecting from;
- Your browsing data might be logged: if privacy is your concern, keep one eye open and check what data retention policies the provider follows. The most important one is the no-logs policy. Since all of the IP requests still go through their servers, they know where you’re headed on the web;
- Port hacking: some proxies use open ports, which are a security liability. Some of the most commonly used and hacked open ports are FTP, DNS, HTTP, and HTTPS. If they’re left open or are not password protected, they leave an open entrance for the hacker to come in;
- Speed fluctuation: especially if it’s a public one, a proxy won’t have great speeds due to a large number of users and their requests — an industry-known problem.
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, and the other is about proxy server protocols.
Let’s start with the types of proxy servers:
The most common type of proxy, the forward proxy, is an intermediary forwarding data (ergo the name) on behalf of the user. In simple terms, this proxy represents the user. Also, this proxy is used as a defense layer because it doesn’t forward traffic until the data has been checked and deemed safe.
The way forward proxy is made for the user, a reverse proxy is utilized by the web server (therefore, the reverse bit). Web servers (service providers) use reverse proxies to cache and retrieve the necessary data. They do that to ensure a smooth experience for the user and lessen the strain on their service. When you’re visiting a reverse proxy — you don’t know you’re connecting to one. Reverse proxy 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, a web proxy server spreads incoming requests over several servers to keep the service up. That way, a big influx of requests doesn’t crash the server.
An anonymous proxy is sometimes referred to as an anonymizer or a distorting proxy. It hides your original IP address and gives you a new one but doesn’t hide the fact that a proxy is in use. It will identify itself as a proxy server in the response header but give a false IP address of the client if asked.
High anonymity proxy
High anonymity proxy hides both the original IP and the fact that you’re using a proxy by routinely changing IPs and not having self-revealing data on its header.
Using a transparent proxy is seamless for the user, ergo the ‘’transparent’’ bit. In reality, it doesn’t modify your online requests and is used to monitor internet use and restrict access. Some employers run it to check on and keep their employees focused. Sometimes, it may be a public library.
CGI (Common Gateway Interface) proxy 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. If you don’t have access to proxy settings or a device doesn’t support such a function — a CGI proxy server is a solution.
Suffix proxy adds its own suffix to the website’s address to overcome firewall filters. However, modern filters can usually block it.
DNS (Domain Name System) proxy
Computers use DNS to translate the home address of a web page from human language into a numerical language — from surfshark.com to 188.8.131.52 (IP address). A DNS (Domain Name System) proxy server handles, allows, or blocks all DNS requests. Let’s say you type in Surfshark.com — a DNS will choose which of Surfshark’s servers complete your request.
Aside from these proxy server types, there are also proxy protocols — sets of digital communication rules defining how they are configured.
Here are the different proxy protocols:
- SSL: Secure Sockets Layer (sometimes referred to as the HTTPS proxy) is a proxy protocol used to protect your data during transmission, such as when you make a transaction during an online purchase. Usually, both the webpage you’re accessing and the data traffic going in and out of the web page are encrypted;
- 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 (read: saves) web pages and files so that you can access them faster on sites 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: SOCKS proxy takes its name from SOCKets Secure protocol. It communicates to a third-party proxy and routes traffic data through their servers on a level lower than HTTP to overcome firewalls. Ergo, the SOCKS protocol is often upgraded with additional security measures to make it undetectable (famously a part of the Shadowsocks protocol).
What are the main differences between a VPN and a proxy?
A VPN — a Virtual Private Network — is not a proxy. They are similar in that both technologies involve online intermediaries, but they have significant differences too. Here’s how the VPN vs. proxy showdown goes:
Routes your browser traffic
Routes all the traffic on your device
Can hide your IP
Hides your IP
May have encryption
The similarities only go as far as how they perform on a basic level — reroute data traffic through an external server and change your IP.
The differences lie in two major components — the protocols used to keep your browsing private and selective data encryption. A premium VPN lets you choose from all data internet encryption to only encrypting a small part of it, like a music app running in the background.
In conclusion: proxies are 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 server, why not check out a VPN? It does that — and a lot more.
What do proxy servers do?
A proxy server stands between the web surfer (you) and the server you’re trying to reach. A proxy will forward every user request and pass any server answer back to the user.
What is a proxy server for Wi-Fi?
Usually, using a proxy server refers to a web browser proxy. However, the same principle can apply to a network proxy — a Wi-Fi proxy. A network proxy reroutes the internet data traffic through a single point (the server).
Is it OK to use a free proxy server?
Many free ones don’t offer stable speeds and exchange your data for money, so they are not as safe. But if money is not an issue for you, it’s best to use a paid proxy or, even better — a VPN.
Should my proxy server be on or off?
If you want to change your IP and use an anonymous proxy server, it’s best to keep it on. If not, then it should always be off. Routing your web traffic through a proxy server may increase data usage and an overall drop in internet speeds.
How do proxies hide IP addresses?
Proxies hide your IP address by acting like mail forwarders. The website or service you’re connecting to will see the connection coming from the proxy, not your device. And that’s how your IP is hidden beneath the server’s.
Are proxy servers legal?
Yes, but they should not be used for illegal practices, such as illegally downloading copyrighted material.
The same goes for VPN: Surfshark does not encourage using a VPN in any way that would potentially violate the law or Terms of Service of other service providers.
Read this article on the legality of VPNs for more information.
Do I have a proxy server?
If you have to ask, then no, no you don’t have a proxy server. Proxy servers aren’t a feature that is simply bundled with the hardware sold to regular consumers, so getting one without knowing about it is unlikely.