With new malware alerts, data breaches, DDOS and phishing attacks constantly in the news, it’s no wonder everyone is gotten a little paranoid. That paranoia isn’t necessarily bad, but it becomes a problem when people don’t do anything about it. Now what to do exactly? A lot of advice has been swirling around the web lately, often mentioning terms like VPN and proxy interchangeably. While both help to add an extra layer of privacy to what people do online, they aren’t the same.
So what is the difference between the two? Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences between a VPN and a proxy.
What is a VPN?
Let’s find out first what a VPN is. Virtual private network is a client-based service that appears as if a device’s traffic is coming from a different IP address. VPN uses a system that routes traffic through remote servers before sending it on to its intended destination.
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When a VPN is turned on, it encrypts data as it’s sent over the network connection then sends the traffic through a secure server. Encryption is what secures the connection and prevents others from rifling through someone’s internet traffic. VPNs make use of different connection protocols – each brings different benefits and downsides to the table.
The server acts as the replacement IP address for the connection and decrypts the data before sending it on. VPN services usually have servers in multiple locations across the globe, and their clients can connect to a server in the location of their choice.
VPNs catch a device’s traffic at the operating system level – which means everything is routed through the VPN. That includes traffic sent through a web browser, application, and even the OS itself.
What is a Proxy?
Much like VPNs, proxies act as intermediaries between a device and the online servers it connects to. The traffic that is sent via the device’s connection is sent through the proxy server first. This serves to hide the device’s IP address and replaces it with the IP address of the proxy server.
So when people need to change their IP address – maybe to watch sports in another country – they connect to a proxy server located in that country. The sports streaming service will then think the request is coming from a local.
The only caveat is that, unlike VPN services, proxy servers are just that – a server. They don’t encrypt the connection to secure it from any peeping toms, which means that something like torrenting is still considered risky.
On top of that, proxy servers only work on the application level. Thus it won’t direct all traffic through the server but only the traffic of one application at a time, such as an app or web browser.
What’s the Difference Between VPN and Proxy?
Even though proxy servers and VPNs use the same method to route internet traffic, they do so in different ways and with different purposes. Let’s take a more detailed look at the differences between these two tools.
VPN vs Proxy: Privacy
Both VPNs and proxy servers hide a device’s IP address. Why is that important? Because it provides some much-needed privacy and anonymity (to a degree). An IP address reveals a lot of personal information, from a person’s physical location to the device they’re using, and even the websites they visit.
That’s not the type of information one wants anyone to discover about them online. The risk isn’t just that a stranger might find it through a torrent server, but data breaches are also a concern.
Companies gather massive amounts of data – all linked to people’s IP addresses – and stored that data on their servers. When a data breach occurs, all that information lands in the hands of criminals. And this happens very, very often.
The difference here is that, while a VPN also encrypts a connection’s traffic and reroutes the traffic of the entire OS, a proxy does not. So a VPN provides more comprehensive coverage as well as anonymity online.
VPN vs Proxy: Security
VPNs use encryption to protect the traffic sent over a connection. This keeps everyone, even a person’s ISP, from tracking what they do online. There are several benefits attached to having an encrypted and anonymous connection.
For one, this protects people from hacking attempts like SSL stripping attacks. It also protects anyone who might need to keep their identities safe, such as journalists and political dissidents.
Proxies, however, do not take any security precautions. Their purpose is to send traffic through a public server that replaces a device’s IP address. While that is still useful for various reasons, like accessing streaming services, it is not advisable for anyone who wants to have a secure connection.
VPN vs Proxy: Getting Around Geo-Restrictions
Both VPNs and proxy servers work well for getting around network restrictions, blocked websites, and geo-restrictions. There are various reasons why someone would be blocked from visiting a website.
Schools and workplaces use network restrictions to keep their people from visiting websites they don’t want them access. Some countries do the same thing with geo-restrictions to keep their citizens from certain websites for various reasons. And finally, some websites and services aren’t available everywhere. Ever got that “this video isn’t available in your country” error on YouTube? That’s a perfect example of geo-blocking.
Because VPNs and proxies replace a device’s IP address, they overcome this issue. It is important to note that some streaming websites block popular proxy and VPN server IPs.
VPN vs Proxy: Connection Speed
Most of the time, proxies don’t affect connection speed either way. There’s a slim chance that a proxy server might make the connection faster – that is if it’s a paid proxy server. Free proxy servers are widely available but may have performance issues, resulting in a slower connection.
A VPN service can either slow a connection down, keep it the same, or sometimes improve it. VPN services tend to slow a connection down due to the encryption overhead and routing to servers that are far from the user’s physical location.
But a good VPN service usually doesn’t slow a connection down at a perceptible level. They can also improve the connection speed in certain circumstances, like when an ISP throttles its users. Since the ISP can’t see what someone’s doing online, the service won’t throttle them.
So now the question becomes, which type of tool – VPN or proxy – should people choose? It depends on what they want to do.
- Someone who wants to stream a sports game from a different country or access their Netflix account while traveling abroad will be good with a proxy server. However, a VPN can do the job as well.
- Someone who wants to protect their privacy and secure their device, whether they’re shopping online or working in a hotel lobby, is better off using a VPN.