On the face of it, it appears that both proxies and VPNs provide the same services. In reality they are quite different tools with very different purposes. Let’s have a look at them and see what the differences are between them.
We’ll start with the proxy server. A proxy server acts as an intermediary between your computer and any computer you are connecting to. This is done in much the same way as your computer uses its router as a gateway to connect to the internet on your local network. So much as the server you are connecting to only sees the IP address of your gateway rather than your internal IP address, when using a proxy the server sees the proxy server’s IP address instead of your gateway’s one. Thus a proxy can be used as a method to hide your public IP address from a server that you are connecting to.
A traditional use of proxy servers was to act as a caching proxy on a local network. When bandwidth was a lot less plentiful as it is now, web pages could take a lot of time to load. A network would generally have a proxy server that local computers would connect to rather than directly to the gateway and the proxy server would fetch content from the internet for them. The proxy server would then cache (store a copy of) what is downloaded which means the next time a computer on the network requested that file it could respond quickly with it and save bandwidth on the internet connection.
While a proxy can mask your public IP address from the servers that you are connecting to, what it doesn’t provide is any form of privacy on your internet connection. All traffic between sent to the proxy server from your server is sent un-encrypted.
Now let’s look at a VPN or Virtual Private Network. As the name implies, a VPN provides a private network connection between your computer and the VPN server. To make this connection private, the data transmitted between your computer and the server is encrypted by your computer and then decrypted by the server before it is sent on. The vice versa applies for data coming back to your computer. This was originally designed with the intention of allowing a remote user the ability to connect securely to a business’ internal network. Due to this encryption there is no way for anyone monitoring your traffic to differentiate which services you are using as all the traffic looks the same and goes to the same server. This means that as well as the server not knowing the IP address that you communicate from, anyone monitoring your network traffic has no idea what you are doing either.
A key use case for a VPN over a proxy would be when using public WiFi hotspots in airports, restaurants, pubs, etc. As it’s very easy for someone to set up a man in the middle attack to snoop other people’s wifi traffic in those situations. The VPN would protect your traffic from prying eyes, as the encryption would prevent the attacker from being able to look at it and seeing what you were up to. Whereas when using a proxy, this information is easily seen.
As can be seen while both a proxy and a VPN are capable of masking the IP address of your computer from the server you are connecting to, only a VPN can protect the data you are sending from prying eyes. Another thing to note is that many publicly available proxy services only support working as a proxy for web traffic, so anything else you run on your computer won’t be sent via the proxy and will reveal your public IP address.
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