VPN and Proxy. What is the difference?

By Jayden Andrews. November 19, 2019

The Web can be a scary place, and for a reason. We are under constant attack from botnets and other criminal elements. Online privacy and security matter in this age, whether it’s your own data or your company information that you need to protect. 

Given the rising number of internet users, coupled with the increase in public Wi-Fi hotspots, there is every reason to be concerned about internet security. Actually, there has never been a better time to be conscious and knowledgeable about privacy and security than now. 

The sad reality is that several entities, including your ISP, governments, and attackers, can form a complete picture of you, if they get a hold of your IP address. So, the only formidable defense is to mask your IP address and encrypt your internet traffic. 

If you are conscious about your online security, you have probably thought of setting a proxy server or a VPN. Both of them reroute your traffic through a remote server and keep you anonymous by masking your IP address. Since these tools can get the job done, some people may treat them as, more or less, the same thing. 

In this VPN vs. proxy showdown, we will discuss what proxies and VPNs are, and which one you should use to remain fully anonymous and protected, while on the internet. Later on, we will discuss why proxies are a poor substitute for VPNs. But we can only do that if we understand how they differ. 

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The Difference Between VPNs and Proxies

When it comes to online privacy, selecting the right tool is very critical. Proxy servers and VPNs both protect your online identity and are excellent tools for accessing geo-restricted content. However, you shouldn’t treat them as substitutes.

Nearly every month, there is a news story about leaked data, ransomware, snooping, encryption, or other digital privacy concerns. Most of these publications emphasize the need to beef up your online security – for instance, using a VPN when connecting to a public Wi-Fi. The only concern is that they are often light on the details. For maximum protection, you should understand precisely how VPNs and proxy servers work.

While they both allow you to appear as if you are connecting to the internet from a desired location, they are fundamentally different. How they accomplish this task and the extent to which they offer encryption and privacy vary wildly. A majority of reputable VPNs have several servers that spread across the globe, while even the best proxy server is just a single server.

What is a Proxy Server

A proxy server is a computer that lets you access websites or other internet services remotely. In simple words, proxies act as an intermediary between your device and the internet, and then respond to all your requests back and forth.

A proxy works almost similar to VPNs. It masks your original IP address, so that the website you are accessing will only see the IP address of the proxy server. What it means is that a proxy helps you stay anonymous while on the internet. It is an excellent solution for accomplishing less sensitive online activities, such as accessing geo-blocked content or changing your IP address.

SOCKS and HTTP are the two most common proxies.

HTTP Proxies

HTTP is the oldest type of proxy servers. These proxies are well-suited for web-based traffic. With HTTP, you plug the proxy server into your browser’s configuration file, and all your internet traffic goes through the remote proxy. Sometimes, your browser may not support proxies. If that is the case, you can use a browser extension to achieve the same goal.

However, if you are using an HTTP proxy to access critical services like your bank or email, use a browser with SSL activated. With that sorted out, you can then connect to a site that supports SSL encryption. The main reason for doing that is that proxies do not encrypt data, so you need to provide the encryption yourself.

SOCKS Proxies

The SOCKS proxy system is just an extension of the HTTP proxy system, but it is indifferent to the traffic that passes it. SOCKS proxies are generally more versatile than HTTP proxies.

Whereas the HTTP proxy system interprets the traffic that goes through it, a SOCKS server will quietly ease the traffic along. It does so regardless of whether that traffic is for an FTP server, a web server, or even BitTorrent client. That is why most people use SOCKS proxies mainly for torrenting. But just like HTTP proxies, SOCKS proxies don’t offer encryption, too. The major downside of using SOCKS proxies is that they are much slower than the pure HTTP proxies.


When Should You Use a Proxy?

Despite their constrained security features, proxies can be useful in many ways. First, most public proxies are free of charge, meaning that you can mask your online identity without spending a penny.

Here are the most common scenarios where proxies can help you:

  • Minimize targeted advertising – Sometimes, all you need is to get away from annoying adverts. When you use a proxy server, these ads won’t be linked to your IP address.
  • Essential privacy protection – Overall, a proxy is a lightweight privacy solution that you can use for modest protection.
  • Access geo-restricted content – Perhaps, this is the most common reason why people use a proxy server.
  • Need a fast solution – It is generally easy to hide your IP with a proxy because you don’t need to install any program.

Proxies Drawbacks

If you are looking for proper online security and privacy, using a proxy server may not be an ideal solution. A proxy server doesn’t encrypt your data. In fact, the only privacy element of a proxy is that it conceals your IP address. Sadly, some websites can detect and block proxies. On top of this, a proxy may interfere with your internet flow. Even if your internet speed is good, a proxy can destabilize the connection.

Sometimes, using a free proxy server could make you more vulnerable to online attacks than browsing without one. On the internet, free is not always reliable. Since it is hard to decipher who is running a proxy server, the server owner or other online criminals could spy on your online activities.

How to select a Proxy Server

To choose the right proxy, you should first understand the amount of protection you need. Some proxies are only suitable for one-off tasks, particularly the ones that are not sensitive. What most people get wrong is that they always depend on free proxy servers. Most of these proxies are almost universally flaky. It can be even more dangerous if you pick a free proxy of unknown origin. But if you know what you are getting in terms of privacy and quality of protection, there are a few well-established free proxies that you can use.

There are several stand-alone commercial proxies out there. But the rise of mobile devices and sophisticated computers, as well as faster connections, have triggered many people to abandon proxies in favor of VPN solutions.

What is VPN

VPNs are perhaps the most secure tools for downloading and browsing online. Just like a proxy, a VPN also reroutes your traffic via a remote server, at the same time masking your IP. A site or service you are trying to visit will only see the fake IP from the VPN server. Its main difference with a proxy is that the VPN protection works on the operating system level. Basically, what it means is that a VPN redirects all your traffic through a remote server, whether the traffic is coming from a browser or a background app.

Besides masking your IP, a VPN encrypts the data between your device and the internet. The encryption means that your data will not be usable, even if it is intercepted. The data you send and receive will only be visible to your device.

Since a VPN server needs more permission on your device than a proxy, it usually requires that you install a separate app. Thankfully, setting up a VPN is generally straightforward. Some premium VPNs may include a user-friendly app to help you connect to different remote servers around the world.

In broad terms, a VPN is a useful tool that can help you in the following situations:


When You Want to Remain Fully Anonymous and Secure

A VPN allows you to not only hide your IP address, but also to encrypt your traffic. If someone were to intercept your traffic, any information they get is useless due to high-level encryption. So, if you want to remain completely anonymous while keeping your privacy intact, then a VPN is what you need.

When You Want to Remain Fully Anonymous and Secure


Stay Protected Throughout Your Connections

Since a VPN is installed on your device, every activity over the network will be protected. Be it web browsing, downloading and uploading files, installing updates, or streaming content, a VPN will cover your bases. Even when you are under unstable conditions, for instance, when using a public Wi-Fi connection that drops from time to time, a VPN will still keep you protected.


Access Blocked Content

A proxy can help you get around geo-restricted content, but a VPN will make it even much simpler and assuring. Most reputable VPNs have several servers scattered around the world. So, you can easily switch up your virtual server environment, depending on where you want to access the blocked content.


Prevent Torrent Throttling

Your ISP is likely to throttle your network connection if they believe you are using it for torrenting. Without a VPN, your ISP will analyze data packets that go through your network to determine if you are torrenting or not.

VPNs Drawbacks

Despite all the good things we have said about VPNs, they also have a few drawbacks. First, you have to pay a few bucks if you want a good VPN service. Ideally, you shouldn’t use free VPNs because cybercriminals often use them to lure unsuspecting users. Besides this, free VPNs tend to share users’ data with third parties.

Another downside of using a VPN is that it might slow down your internet speed. Some less reliable VPN services can also expose you when a VPN disconnects. Though rare, some providers may log your connections data for various reasons. The most encouraging thing is that reputable VPNs usually have no-logging policies. What it means is that they don’t store your IP and your other sensitive information.

VPN vs. Proxy: Which Is the Best for You?

Proxies and VPNs both are similar because they channel your traffic through a remote server and mask your original IP address. But they cannot work as substitutes since they offer varying levels of protection.

Without dwelling on the specifics, a proxy is a valuable tool for protecting your online privacy, if you don’t have access to a premium VPN. In fact, you are better off with a professional proxy than a free VPN. With that said, no proxy server can offer the same level of privacy, convenience, and security as a premium VPN.

Perhaps the main advantage of choosing a VPN over a proxy server is the level of security a VPN provides. Along with masking your IP address, a VPN creates a secure tunnel between your device and the internet. If a connection drops, a proxy is likely to expose you, a risk that you can avoid with a VPN.

Apart from security, a VPN allows you to choose a geographical location. In other words, it has the power to conceal your IP and location. This way, you can keep your internet activities completely anonymous.

The only time you may want to use a proxy is when you need a fast solution for a simple task like accessing a blocked website. Even then, you should not send any sensitive information over the connection. All in all, a VPN is still a better solution for anyone who values online privacy and security.

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