In modern times, the Internet is probably one of the most powerful platforms for human interaction. Whether used for the purpose of business, socializing with others to journalism and staying in touch with world events, it is an incredibly useful resource placed at the fingertips of almost 5.54 billion people worldwide. However, as more and more gain access to the world wide web, staying safe on the net becomes ever more important, but can also present a growing challenge.
Considering the fact that an increasing number of the devices we use everyday, including but not limited to personal computers, smart phones, home security systems and smart home devices, is connected to the internet and susceptible to attack from hackers and malware, many wander what they can do to increase their security online. Such internet users, who keep their cyber-security in mind, might decide to use a proxy server or consider whether to set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN). What are the differences between the two and which one might suit you better?
Proxy vs VPN, what are they?
Proxies and VPNs are systems that can help users stay secure online. They do so by hiding the Internet Protocol address (often abbreviated as IP address) of the user, allowing greater privacy on the web, facilitating the anonymous use of the net. However the difference lies in the way that each of the systems achieves the goal.
Benefits of Proxies and VPNs
Proxy servers act as a intermediary between the user and the internet and excel as a tool used for the more basic ways to use the internet. Since proxies are especially good at IP masking and misdirection, they can be a great tool for circumventing content restrictions, allowing the viewing of websites that normally would not be available to the user, for example due to government censoring or other geographical restrictions. They also improve privacy of the user by exchanging some information that might be requested by the website being accessed. Thus, the actual site will not have access to the user’s personal data, including browsing habits, allowing for greater safety.
Another way that proxy servers can be used, is as means to monitor the content viewed by those connected to it. Because of that, they can be used as a parental control, or alternatively might be used by companies to monitor the Internet browsing of employees, not allowing access to certain websites during work hours. This can strengthen the cyber-security of businesses, by allowing workers to access necessary tools like email or web content they require, while also protecting company data due by restricting access to unsafe web pages.
Proxy servers can also help in improving connection speed and saving bandwidth, especially when used by companies or organisations. Proxies have the ability to cache, or save copies of often-visited websites locally and update that copy on request. Because of that, even if multiple users of the server request access to the same website at the same time, the proxy will only need to request one update from said website. This can save the bandwidth of organisations and improve the performance of entire networks.
VPNs on the other hand work on a different principle. When requested, a VPN client on the user’s device connects to the VPN server via a secure tunnel, replacing the connections from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Since all the data and information flowing between the users device and the VPN server are encrypted, they can not be seen by anyone else. The main difference to proxies is the fact that VPNs encrypt all data exchanged between the user and server, not just content requests, adding another layer of privacy. Due to that, VPNs are capable of the same things as proxy servers in terms of security, privacy and anonymity. They can hide your location, allowing for bypassing censorship and allow access to sites restricted on geographic basis. Good VPN service providers do not store any user data, meaning that even if requested, they can’t provide anyone with the information on their customers or their browsing history. Since they fully encrypt all data, VPNs are also well suited as an additional level of security when using non-secure networks, such as public W-Fi, protecting from the theft of personal information including online passwords and credit and debit card data.
Drawbacks of Proxies and VPNs
Both proxy servers and VPNs however, have associated disadvantages.
Often, due to high ping times or the amount of other users and traffic, proxies might slow down the loading of web pages, noticeably impacting the streaming and downloading of content. This can be especially apparent when using public servers, which do not limit the numbers of users of each proxy server. They can also be vulnerable to attack. Some proxies may save private data, and thus, when attacked and infiltrated, passwords, usernames, browsing history and other information on users can be stolen.
The drawbacks of VPNs are in a way similar. Since they use a local client in order to connect with the server, any preexisting problems with device memory or CPU may result in the connection to the internet being noticeably slower. Another thing to consider is the legality of using VPNs. Some governments ban their use, therefore it’s always worth checking if such services are legal in the country of residence of the user. To add to that, some websites and online services try to combat the use of VPNs. This may mean that to access certain sites, higher quality providers need to be used. This often results in VPNs being more expensive to use than proxy servers. Finally, even VPNs cannot guarantee full security if not using the HTTPS protocol, which means log-on data or other information provided to some sites, may no longer be secure when stored on the actual website servers, allowing information theft.
Proxy vs VPN Summary
Maintaining security and privacy online is a growing concern. The use of correct tools can help in achieve it, whether proxy or VPN. Some users will be satisfied with the use of a proxy server and its capabilities to provide anonymity to the user, or for its ability to filter and control internet usage. Others, especially companies, might prefer the use of VPNs to create a secure and safe space for the users of their networks, while being able to afford high quality providers. Still others might make use of the combination of both, to exploit the advantages of each system and improve cyber security.
The main thing to keep in mind is the fact that neither proxies or VPNs can guarantee complete safety in cyberspace. Often the choice of the right, trusted provider of either service to be used, is the actual key to achieving the highest level of online security.