Understanding is the first step to achieving personal privacy online. Learning what you need to know can feel overwhelming, especially when similar tools have slight but impactful differences. The first thing to understand is that your information is in danger, especially if you use public WiFi to surf the internet. browser VPNs and proxy servers are two ways to gain more privacy, but no one should feel their information is completely safe with any option. It isn’t. But knowing when to use what tool for privacy is key to achieving the maximum possible amount of safety.
Proxy vs VPN – What’s the Difference
Let’s jump right into definitions. The general definition of a “proxy” is something with the authority to represent something else. On the web, in the case of a proxy server, this means that one server replaces another one in a different location, so that internet traffic appears to be coming from a different place than it actually is. Someone in Paris, France can make their browsing activity appear to be coming from Manhattan, NY, USA using a proxy server. Most of the time, this traffic isn’t encrypted. So, while it appears to be coming from somewhere else, if they wanted to, prying eyes (like the government) could see exactly what sites are being visited if they wanted to.
For further protection from these prying eyes, which could include your internet service provider (ISP) and hackers, you need a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN server acts as a proxy server, but it is encrypted, more capabilities and adds more protection. This is because a VPN browser encrypts the data so that your activity and information is scrambled. When using a VPN, outsides may be able to see that a proxy server is being used depending on how hard they try, but they will not be able to snoop your activities and information, obviously making it the safer choice. Depending on the VPN service you use, you may also have access to more proxy servers in better locations.
When to Use a Proxy
Despite the lack of encryption, there are some circumstances when you may want to use a proxy server. There are free and paid versions, but we advise against using a free one. Free proxies are usually public and expose your system to snooping and attacks If you pay for a proxy, make sure it’s private. Even though the privacy has a price, proxies are a more affordable option than a VPNs. For your own safety, they should only be used for low-risk activities, mostly involving geo-spoofing. Some examples include:
- Tricking a video game into thinking you’re located in a different country
- Accessing and watching short (possibly geo-restricted) videos on sites like YouTube
- Accessing low-risk, geo-restricted websites
Do not use a proxy server for any kind of high-risk activity like visiting government-restricted websites or torrent databases. Most proxy servers can also be detected by the big name streaming services, so you probably won’t be able to stream TV shows or movies on Netflix or Hulu either. Remember that HTTPS websites are the most secure, and that only your browser activity is protected with a proxy server.
When to Use a VPN?
The fact that they use encryption makes VPNs the better choice for higher risk activities. Any activity you choose to do is done at your own risk, but here is what encrypted privacy makes possible:
- Visit higher-risk government restricted websites
- Visit P2P/torrent databases
- Use a BitTorrent client (because internet traffic is encrypted with VPNs)
- Access and stream geo-restricted TV and movies from popular streaming websites.
VPNs aren’t free of limitations. Here are some the limitations of VPNs:
- Encryption can slow down speed
- Popular streaming sites are getting more advanced VPN detection every day. Do your research to find out which one works best for you.
- VPNs cost money. Don’t trust a free service that claims to encrypt your data. Chances are, your browsing activity is exposed.
Keep in mind that only a full VPN will encrypt your entire operating system. There are browser VPNs that only encrypt your browser traffic.
Some services will not permit torrenting/P2P sharing and only encrypt your browsing activities. If that’s the case, don’t take the risk of torrenting. All of your internet traffic needs to be encrypted to torrent safely.
If you plan to torrent often, we recommend a full VPN with advanced capabilities like a kill switch over a browser VPN.
Now that you know the pros, cons, similarities, and differences between a proxy and a VPN, you are armed with the knowledge you need to choose which one is right for you. We can’t make the choice for you, but we do have one last piece of advice: it’s better to be safe than sorry. If torrenting or access to geo-restricted content on websites like Netflix or Hulu intrigues you, start doing research on VPNs. If you occasionally surf the internet and sometimes run into a blocked video on YouTube, then your answer might be a free proxy. Whatever you do, do not choose blindly. Research is the first important step toward achieving internet privacy and security.