Choosing between several cybersecurity options can be a challenging task. As their functions overlay, it becomes difficult to differentiate between them. VPNs and proxy servers often reappear next to each other. Are they the same? The answer is no. Is VPN a proxy? Again, no. They certainly have similarities, but they’re not synonymous.
My goal with this article is to define both online privacy solutions and explore the differences, as well as similarities, through the lens of privacy, geo-blocking, network restrictions, torrenting, and connection speed.
By the end of this post, you’ll be able to see which one of these is a better option for you.
What is a proxy server?
A proxy server stands in the middle between you and the device or network you’re trying to reach.
Instead of going straight to the endpoint, the action you take first goes through a proxy server. It masks your request and sends it to the target website or a computer. The goal is to make it look like it wasn’t you who initiated the action. The website sees an IP address of a proxy instead of your location.
This is quite a simplified description, so be sure to dive deeper into the definition of a proxy server.
What is a VPN?
A VPN creates a secure tunnel between you and the internet.
Any request you send out into the world wide web goes through the VPN tunnel and gets encrypted. That way, your IP address is hidden, giving you more online freedom with vastly improved privacy and security.
Again, this is the basic, essential information that should be complemented with a more extensive guide on what is a VPN.
Without any further ado, let’s see what’s the difference between VPN and proxy.
VPN vs Proxy: Privacy
|Hides your IP address|
|Works on the operating system level|
Both VPN and proxy hide your IP address from onlookers. However, your proxy owner can see what sites you visit, and their encryption is not hacker-proof.
Why is it important to hide your IP address? Well, an IP address reveals your location (not only the country and the city, but also street name and postal code), and that is something most of us don’t want to share with everyone. Besides, the websites you visit usually collect even more information about you: the browser you use, your operating system, sometimes even your browsing history.
Isn’t it a bit creepy that this information about you floats casually in cyberspace? All it takes is a security breach on a website, and your personal data can get in the hands of shady individuals.
The number I’m about to tell you might be difficult to grasp, but data breaches are more common than most of us realize. Just in the first half of 2019, data breaches have exposed 4.1 billion records.
By using reputable VPN services or premium proxy servers, you protect your privacy online. Be sure to stay away from free online security tools as they more often than not collect your data.
As I’m finishing up this section, let me expand on the last two parts of the above-table. When I write that a proxy server only works on the application level, it means that only the traffic that goes through one app or website gets encrypted. Meanwhile, a VPN encrypts all of the traffic that goes through the network.
VPN vs Proxy: Geo-Blocking & Network Restrictions
|Bypasses network restrictions|
Both VPN and proxy can be used to bypass geo-blocking, but proxies are also used to block access to websites.
Various institutions, like schools, universities, or workplaces, often use proxy servers to restrict access to specific sites on their network. Unsurprisingly, it’s usually social media that gets all the blame for distractions and lack of productivity.
When it comes to network restrictions in schools and workplaces, a VPN might be tricky to implement. Why? Because you’ll most likely need admin authorization to install a program.
However, for the times when you want to reach a geo-block website (e.g., you’re out of your home country, but want to reach a local news site) or watch a movie that’s only available on the US Netflix library, a VPN is your reliable friend. It grants you access while protecting your privacy all the way through.
Of course, it’s not all easy-going fun. Countries like China have taken extreme measures to restrict VPN use nation-wide. As time goes by, it becomes increasingly difficult for citizens to use a VPN of their choice freely. I would be ecstatic to say that a VPN grants you access to anything anywhere, but the reality is a bit different. Let’s just hope it’s not a permanent reality.
VPN vs Proxy: Torrents
|Grants access to torrent websites|
|Ensures privacy while using torrents|
A proxy and a VPN let you access torrent websites that are blocked in various countries. However, a VPN also ensures that you can use them to the fullest without compromising your privacy.
As torrents are increasingly frowned upon and banned, proxy server providers have taken full advantage of it. According to the data on the digital marketing analysis tool (Ahrefs), keywords relating to a popular torrenting website are just below the main keyword proxy in regards to search volume. Search volume refers to the number of monthly Google searches that you can see next to a keyword, as illustrated below.
It’s fair to assume that the primary use of proxies is accessing torrent websites. And as I’m putting these keywords into Google, I realize that all of the proxies (at least the ones ranking in the first Google search page) are free and, therefore, unsecured. Most of the websites instantly bombard you with pop-ups and ads suggesting you to install a VPN since your IP address is visible.
Online security tools need resources to be developed; thus, there’s no way that proxy providers offering you their services for free don’t make money off of it. How do they make money then? Most of the time, they get paid through ads or by selling your data to marketing and other companies. And by the number of people searching for these services, I don’t doubt that the providers make more than enough money off of their users.
VPN vs Proxy: Connection Speed
|Can improve speed if throttled|
Using private proxies can improve the loading speed. When you go to a website through a proxy server, the proxy server connects you to the so-called copy of the website. In technical terms, you’d say that proxy servers cache data. You don’t visit the site directly, and instead, you’re given a version of the website that proxy has saved because you visited it previously.
However, this feature has its disadvantages. Notice how I ended the last paragraph. It’s important to know that a proxy server will only improve your connection speed if you’ve previously visited that site you’re trying to reach. That’s because, in order to save a copy of the website, a proxy needs to see it first.
A proxy might also connect you to an older version of the website, which can affect your browsing experience.
Note: Even when proxies have a positive effect on internet speed, it’s mostly minimal. In most cases, you won’t notice any change. You can also experience performance issues if you go for free proxy services.
A VPN can have a different type of effect on internet speed, depending on several factors.
- You might experience slower connection speeds because of a VPN protocol, servers that are too far from your real location, or just a VPN provider in general (there are thousands of VPN providers, they can’t all be good).
- A VPN can improve your loading speed if your internet service provider throttles your internet connection. If you’re confused by the terminology, I recommend this article on internet throttling.
- A VPN can also improve internet speed by caching site data (similar to proxy servers).
Generally, a VPN shouldn’t have negative effects on the internet speed, and top VPN providers invest a lot in the technology to avoid such problems.
Which One Wins: VPN or Proxy?
|Best for||Encrypting all your traffic and ensuring online privacy||Accessing blocked content|
- Both a VPN and a proxy hide your IP address. However, a VPN encrypts all traffic, while a proxy only takes care of the traffic that goes through a specific app or a website.
- Your proxy owner can see what websites you visit. They often see your IP address as well.
- You can get your hands on free and paid VPN and proxy services. However, neither free proxies or VPNs are a smart decision.
- You can bypass geo-blocking and network restrictions with a VPN and a proxy server. A proxy is often used as a way to block access to specific websites in schools and workplaces.
- Proxies and VPNs grant you access to torrents, but only a VPN ensures privacy and security.
- A VPN and a proxy can improve your internet speed, but the connection itself is usually more stable with a VPN.
Simply put, a proxy is like a demo version of a VPN.
When it comes to getting a VPN, users have a lot of options. Naturally, there are different types of players in the game. However, reputable VPN providers not only offer strong encryption and many privacy-enhancing features, but they also don’t log and sell your data.
Ultimately, picking one of the two depends on your goal. A proxy will take you to a blocked website and hide your IP address from onlookers. If that sounds good enough to you, great. However, if you want more than that for a similar price, go for a VPN. And always keep in mind that you’ll have a much better experience with a paid, trustworthy service.