While VPNs are sucking up all the oxygen in the privacy conversation, there is a similar technology that hasn’t gotten the same attention: the humble proxy. We asked experts from two leading VPN companies just what the difference is and whether you need one, both, or neither. Granted, both companies have an interest in promoting VPNs, but they remain experts in how privacy products work. Furthermore, NordVPN also offers its own proxy product with its VPN service.
What Is a Proxy? (Hint: It’s Not a VPN)
Proxies are like cousins to VPNs. Like a VPN, they can reroute your web traffic to make it appear as if it is coming from somewhere else, hiding your real IP address in the process. Kiril Mikulskij, the Network Engineering Team Lead at NordVPN, explained that proxies work by “transporting your traffic between your client machine and a proxy server by encapsulating it in some kind of outer header.” Like a VPN, a proxy sends your web traffic to the proxy server, which, Mikulskij says, spits it back out onto the internet.
A VPN, Mikulskij said, adds layers to this basic process. “A VPN works in a very similar fashion but on top of the encapsulation, we add encryption by default and ensure the packets are authenticated.”
With a VPN, you can be reasonably certain all of your web traffic is encrypted, but that’s not always the case with proxies. Laurent Fasnacht, who leads the R&D at ProtonVPN, explained that proxies using SOCKS and HTTP protocols do not encrypt user traffic. SSL or HTTPS proxies, but not HTTP proxies that forward to HTTPS, do encrypt user traffic.
“I would strongly recommend against using non-encrypted proxies, as they don’t provide any protection,” said Fasnacht. “Nowadays encryption should be the norm for any service. There is absolutely no excuse not to use it.”
Another key difference is how the connections are made. “With the VPN server it’s kind of a tunnel that will stay there,” said Fasnacht. VPN connections are usually handled at the OS level and apply to all web traffic from your machine. “Whenever your computer wants to send some traffic, it goes through the [VPN] tunnel.”
A proxy is different. Mikulskij explained that each application requires its own proxy connection. In practical terms, the proxy connection to handle your browser traffic won’t work for another application on your machine. This leaves lots of opportunities for web traffic to leave your machine outside the proxy connection.
Do You Need a Proxy—Or a VPN, For That Matter?
Both of the VPN experts agreed that a VPN does a better job obscuring your web traffic and protecting your privacy. However, there are some uses for proxies, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Fasnacht said that while a VPN encrypts all the traffic from your machine, it often requires higher levels of permissions to do so. A proxy, however, can be set up without any special permissions. There are several sites out on the web that function as proxies, where you type in a URL and browse the destination site through the proxy site in your browser. You may recall these from a reckless youth spent trying to circumvent restrictions on your high school’s internet connection.
Mikulskij likewise noted that if all you care about is unblocking websites or making your traffic appear as if it were coming from somewhere else, you can do this quickly and easily with a proxy. He did point out that many VPNs offer lots of servers in different locations, as well as additional privacy tools, that make it potentially more attractive.
Notably, several VPN services offer browser plug-ins that are really proxies. Mikulskij confirmed that NordVPN’s browser plug-in provides an encrypted proxy connection.
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Both Fasnacht and Mikulskij also agreed that there wasn’t any sense in using a VPN and a proxy simultaneously. Routing web traffic through a VPN alone will always reduce speed and performance, and adding the additional layer of complexity from a proxy makes it a recipe for extremely bad performance.
With security and privacy products, it can often be difficult to sort out what is mere marketing and what the product will actually do for you.
“For me it’s a bit annoying when, as a tech guy, I see people making the wrong choices because of ads, because of bad explanations,” said Fasnacht. He suggested that consumers work to research the products, even if it’s complex to do so. Learning what a product can actually do and understanding what you want to use it for in the first place, would guide consumers to better choices—especially when products are given away for free.
That’s especially true for VPNs and proxies, which could potentially monitor your online activity for advertising or other nefarious purposes. Free products, especially, need scrutiny since they need money from somewhere to continue operating.
Understanding what the product you’re using actually does is essential as is knowing how it makes money, Fasnacht said. That’s especially true if it doesn’t cost anything. “If it’s free,” said Fasnacht, “why is it free?”
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