SOCKS5 (Socket Secure) proxies are often mistaken as an alternative or equivalent to virtual private networks (VPN). They are not. This confusion can lead a computer user to a false sense of security. To untangle this issue, I prepared this post, which will explain just what sort of animal a SOCKS proxy is and what you can do with it. 

In short: what is a SOCKS proxy?

A SOCKS proxy is a server that uses the SOCKS protocol to route your data – unlike a VPN, it does so without encryption. SOCKS5 is just the latest, fastest version of the SOCKS protocol.

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    What is SOCKS?

    SOCKS is an internet protocol that offers users a greater degree of anonymity than just browsing the web normally. When you connect to a SOCKS proxy, your internet traffic is routed through a third-party server using Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). This gives you a new IP (Internet Protocol) address for the duration of SOCKS use; changing your IP address means that web hosts (read: websites and services) can’t pin down your true physical location.

    What is SOCKS5?

    SOCKS5 is the most up-to-date version of the SOCKS protocol. SOCKS5 proxies are no longer plagued by issues present in SOCKS4, the original widely adopted version. It offers three authentication methods and supports the UDP protocol (which is faster but less reliable than TCP).

    How does a SOCKS proxy work?

    An illustration that represents the OSI model as floors on an elevator.

    SOCKS5 proxies are more wide-reaching than traditional HTTP proxies. According to the OSI model, which allows a unified understanding of telecommunication systems without caring which system is in use, SOCKS works on the fifth (of seven) layers.

    SOCKS sits on the transport layer above TCP and UDP (the protocols that handle basically all of your data transfers). This means that it can form physical connections between the client and the server to ensure that all packets arrive at their intended destinations the same way they were sent.

    While SOCKS offers a few authentication methods (so that your device can be sure it’s connecting to what you want it to be connecting), it does not provide encryption. This means that anyone sitting between you and the proxy server (your ISP or a hacker that compromised your favorite public WiFi hotspot) can read your data.

    Do I need a SOCKS proxy?

    SOCKS5 proxies are ideal for scenarios that require bypassing regional filters or firewalls… and that’s it. If you want to encrypt your data so that it couldn’t be read between you and the server it’s routed to, you may need to look elsewhere. Implementing a SOCKS protocol alone does not guarantee privacy and will not keep you safe from government surveillance or attacks on public WiFi.

    Surfshark does not encourage using a VPN in any way that would potentially violate the Terms of Service of other service providers.

    How safe are SOCKS proxies?

    SOCKS proxies are safe if you use the premium versions – just like VPNs! Certain proxy companies have been known to log user data. If you use a premium SOCKS proxy provider, this will not be an issue. Your information will remain safe and secure, so you can go about your business worry-free.

    What are the benefits of SOCKS proxies?

    SOCKS5 proxies can be pretty great for everyday users for a few reasons: 

    Overcoming network firewalls

    Network firewalls block connections based on IP addresses. So if you want to visit Instagram and, say, your employer has blocked Instagram’s IP, the firewall won’t let you do it. But when you’re connected to a proxy, the firewall only sees you trying to connect to the proxy’s IP and lets it through. 

    Hiding your IP address online 

    Normally, when you connect to a web host (service or website), it records your actual IP address. But what if you don’t want to hand out the digital equivalent of your home address online willy-nilly? Then you can use a proxy, as connecting via a proxy essentially replaces your IP with the proxy’s.

    Changing your geographic location online 

    An IP address can be geolocated to a country or even a city. This may lead to some services blocking you due to where you are connecting from. But, with a proxy, the services will only see the proxy’s IP – and its location. So as long as the proxy is in the right place, you can access stuff you couldn’t otherwise. 

    Hiding the websites you go to from your ISP (Internet Service Provider)

    Your internet provider can see what websites you’re connecting to. But when you’re using a proxy, they can only see that you’re connecting to a proxy. So, they can’t snoop on you.

    No install necessary

    Say you have a proxy server set up somewhere. So if you have to use a device that doesn’t allow installing apps (like a VPN app), you can just connect to the proxy server if you’re allowed to fiddle with connection settings. 

    What is the difference between a SOCKS proxy and an HTTP proxy?

    In short, HTTP proxies only handle HTTP requests – so they only work when accessing websites. A SOCKS proxy routes data from any website or app, making it a more universal choice. 

    SOCKS5 proxies connect to the internet utilizing a process known as tunneling; tunneling is widely accepted as one of the most secure ways to connect to and access the internet. It’s undoubtedly more secure than traditional, standard HTTP proxies. 

    HTTP proxies use an open port to connect with the internet. Because tunnels aren’t used to form connections, these proxies are easily broken down and penetrated. SOCKS5 proxies do not have this issue.

    SOCKS vs. VPNs: What’s the difference?

    The difference is that SOCKS proxies aren’t as secure as VPNs. Of course, because both mask your IP address from prying eyes, most everyday users would think that these two are virtually the same. But that’s not quite the case:

    SOCKS Proxy
    Concealing your IP
    Encrypting traffic
    Hiding download activity from ISP

    Do I need SOCKS if I have a VPN?

    You don’t need a SOCKS proxy if you have a VPN because it already does everything SOCKS does and more.

    Can I get a SOCKS5 proxy for free?

    You can potentially find a SOCKS5 proxy for free. People often suggest looking for a free VPN that offers SOCKS5 functionality. 

    However, we strongly advise you against using a free VPN – and this extends to any proxies on offer. Any criticism that’s rightfully aimed at free VPNs can also be applied to free SOCKS proxies, including:

    • Low speeds;
    • Not much choice in server locations;
    • Potential of data theft.

    Thus, by choosing a free proxy, you are putting your online security at risk. 

    In conclusion: Get the right tool for the right task 

    SOCKS proxies are an excellent choice for those looking to add another layer of safety to their browsing habits. But, overall, VPNs are the clear choice when it comes to keeping your dealings online private as well as providing access to the content you crave. And while nothing is stopping you from using both technologies at the same time, the benefits are largely marginal. So why not just go with a VPN?

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    Are SOCKS5 proxies free?

    A proxy isn’t free unless you set it up yourself. Any that you find online that claim to be free are immediately suspicious as they have to upkeep the proxy somehow – and this may involve selling data on your browsing habits. 

    Where can I find a SOCKS5 proxy?

    Like most of the things on the internet, you can find SOCKS5 proxy by looking online. Just steer clear of free offers. 

    Can you use SOCKS5 and a VPN?

    You can use a SOCKS5 proxy and a VPN at the same time. However, the real impact of this would be adding an additional step in the road between your device and where the data is supposed to go, making your connection slower. 

    What does SOCKS stand for with regard to proxies?

    SOCKS stands for “Socket Secure” and it’s a type of proxy protocol.

    Are proxy and SOCKS the same?

    Proxy is an umbrella term and SOCKS is a specific proxy protocol.