Socket secure (or SOCKS) proxies are often mistaken as an alternative or equivalent to virtual private networks. This often leads to confusion for computer users and can provide a false sense of security.

SOCKS is an internet protocol that offers users a greater degree of anonymity than they set out with initially. When you connect to a SOCKS proxy, your Internet traffic is routed through a third-party server via Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). Over the course of this process, you’re assigned a brand new IP address; this change in your IP address means that web hosts can’t pin down your exact physical location.

SOCKS proxies are ideal for scenarios that require bypassing regional filters. If you’re on the hunt for encryption, though, 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 that occur on Public WiFi. Because it doesn’t run through every application, regular browsing is not always safe.

How Does a SOCKS Proxy Work?

SOCKS proxies are more wide-reaching than traditional HTTP proxies. One way to understand the level that they operate on is to have a some knowledge of the OSI model.

The OSI model is a reference model created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers IEEE committee with the intent to make it easier for various vendors and products to work in conjunction with each other. This model consists of seven layers ranked from lowest to highest:

  1. The Physical Layer
    • Responsible for transmitting the raw bit stream
    • Hardware interface
    • Electric signaling
  2. The Datalink Layer
    • Responsible for flow control
    • Provides hardware addressing
    • This is where frames are located
  3. The Network Layer
    • The way that systems on different network find each other
    • Found in this layer:
      • Subnets
      • Path determination
    • IP & IPX protocols used here
  4. The Transport Layer
    • Breaks data up into frames
    • Assigns sequence numbers
    • Checks for errors in received data
    • SPX and UDP protocols work here
  5. The Session Layer
    • Responsible for establishing and maintaining connections
    • Also responsible for ports
  6. The Presentation Layer
    • Ensures that when data is received, it’s usable
    • Data encryption executed here
  7. The Application Layer
    • Determines when access to the network is needed

SOCKS proxies sit within the higher level of this model. It’s below SSL, which lands in the seventh category, but above things like TXP and UDP on the transport layer. This means that it can form physical connections with the client and the server in attempt to ensure that all packets arrive at their intended destinations in the same way they were sent.

SOCKS does not handle encryption. It can, however, offer a few methods of authentication. The average instance of SOCKS usage will look something like this:

  1. A client begins by sending a connection request
    • A list of authentication methods supported will be included in this request
  2. The servers will then assess the methods and select one that suits them
    • If no methods are found to be acceptable, a failure response will be sent
  3. If all goes well and everything is accepted, information will be passed between the client and the server
    • Client sends connection request; server responds

What are the Different Types of SOCKS Proxies?

SOCKS4

SOCKS4 was the first widely-adopted version of a SOCKS protocol. This initial iteration came with a few caveats:

  • There was no authentication involved; all it took for a client to be able to access SOCKS4 services was a username
  • Clients had to know the IP addresses of the servers they wanted to connect to; this meant that oftentimes they had to be able to resolve domain names

SOCKS4A

SOCKS4A was designed as a simple solution to the first issue with SOCKS4 mentioned above.

SOCKS5

SOCKS5 is the most up-to-date version of the SOCKS protocol. SOCKS5 solved both of the issues that plagued SOCKS4 in its original iteration. An extensible authentication system was implemented in order to enhance security; this new standard features a trio of authentication methods

  1. Null authentication– No authentication required
  2. Username/password authentication– Clients need to provide a username and password combination in order to access proxy servers
  3. GSS-API authentication– Clients and servers utilize authentication methods at the operating system level in order to verify the identity

How Safe are SOCKS?

SOCKS proxies allow you the opportunity to access and browse the internet anonymously. They act as a middleman of sorts– serving to mask your legitimate location and IP address information in order to prevent you from being tracked. So instead of using your own IP address to connect to servers online, your SOCKS proxy will take over and use a different IP address for you.

These 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. SOCKS proxies do not experience this issue.

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– which means that you can go about your business worry-free.

What Are the Most Common Uses of SOCK Proxies?

SOCKS proxies are excellent options for scenarios that involve firewalls. Because SOCKS servers don’t interpret the network that flows between client and server, they’re often used in situations where clients are behind a firewall. This means that the clients aren’t permitted to establish TCP connections to servers outside of this firewall– unless they use a SOCKS server to do it.

The bulk of web browsers can be easily configured (following a little research) to communicate with web servers via SOCKS servers. Clients must be “SOCKS enabled” due to the fact that they’ll need to make an initial connection to SOCKS servers and let the host know where they want to connect to.

Because SOCKS servers are general purpose proxy servers, they see use in a wide range of everyday applications, too. Their compatibility with any sort of network protocol on any port makes them a diverse, easy-to-use option in a wealth of scenarios.

SOCKS vs. VPN– What’s the Difference?

As previously mentioned, it’s not uncommon for the average computer user to confused SOCKS proxies and VPNs. Both mask your IP address from prying eyes; to the layman, this can seem like the one and only thing to concern yourself with when you’re looking to up your security.

Other factors come into play in this equation, though. For example: proxy servers don’t fully encrypt your traffic. This means that SOCKS proxies are generally accepted to run more quickly. Because they don’t have to expend resources working to encrypt traffic, they usually offer higher download and upload speeds than VPN alternatives.

This is a key differentiator between SOCKS proxies and VPNs. It’s generally thought that the choice between a VPN or a SOCKS Proxy is the choice between privacy and speed.

When all is said and done, using a VPN is going to afford an internet user more anonymity and a greater security blanket. The end-to-end encryption that’s tackled by VPNs is what actually keeps you safe– it prevents ISPs, government agencies, advertisers, and anybody else from keeping an eye on your internet activities. SOCKS only masks who, exactly, you are.

There are a few things to keep in mind when selecting between a SOCKS proxy or a VPN:

  • Both options conceal your IP address and mask your identity on the web
  • VPNs encrypt your traffic; SOCKS proxies do not
  • Utilizing SOCKS proxies for common P2P apps gives you the chance to achieve better upload and download speeds than a VPN
  • If you elect to use SOCKS proxies, your ISP can still track your downloading activities
    • Meanwhile, VPN offers complete concealment and anonymity

Conclusions

For those who don’t want to choose between the two, there’s great news in store for you: you don’t have to! Some VPN services allow you to utilize both SOCKS proxies and VPNs. Amongst these, a few even allow you to take advantage of these dual benefits for no additional charge.

Anybody on the hunt for more comprehensive security offers and greater peace of mind, however, is going to be best served by the utilization of a VPN. SOCKS proxies are excellent choices for those looking to add a layer of safety to their browsing habits, but VPNs are the clear choice when it comes to keeping your dealings online entirely private.

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