What is a proxy and how is it different from a VPN?

In these times of growing Internet user’s concern about security and privacy, it may be that as we delve deeper into these issues, we come across two technologies (“VPN” and “proxy”) that may seem similar in many ways, but whose differences are quite relevant.

Certainly, both technologies allow us to connect to remote computers, thus making it easier to mask our IP address. But depending on the specific use that we want to give to that capacity (circumvent geoblocks? Elude cyber-surveillance?) We will be more interested in opting for one or the other.

This is a proxy…

When we are browsing the World Wide Web, it is usual for our computer to connect directly to the webserver that we are visiting and to download the page in question so that we can view it.

But when we connect through a proxy, we use it as an intermediary for all web traffic, so we send our request to the proxy, it forwards it to the website we want to visit, and when it responds to the proxy, it will send all the information back so that we can view the site.

Connected to the server is not the user’s IP that accesses the web, but the proxy’s. This, in addition to granting us anonymity, allows us to circumvent content restrictions based on geolocation: if we tried to use a French Netflix account from the US, the platform would not allow it. But we would avoid that problem by accessing through a French proxy.

Problem: the proxy server will know our real IP address. If the proxy service is not reliable, we will have hidden from some just to expose ourselves to others.

… and this is a VPN

Like the proxy, a VPN (‘Virtual Private Network’) is also a server that routes our online traffic. But where the proxy only routes requests from a single application (usually from the web browser), a VPN service is able to do that with all the traffic on our network.

And it not only routes it: it tunnels it. Thus, all the traffic that circulates between the VPN client and the server will be encrypted and authenticated (using TLS or IPSec protocols or other more advanced protocols).

This is important because where the proxy limited itself to anonymizing us but left the door open for criminals or state forces to intercept our traffic (such as our access credentials, browsing history, etc.), a VPN protects us against such eventuality.

It must be said: this extra protection means that VPN services will normally offer a lower traffic speed than those offered by a proxy.

Which one do I choose, then?

The above-explained already provides enough clues on what kind of purpose each service will be most useful for. But let’s analyze in some more details:

  • “I am an opponent in a country that does not respect liberties, and I want to communicate securely with other activists or access officially censored content”: well, don’t you think about resorting to a proxy. Even if they are not intercepting your data flow, various vulnerabilities in your browser linked to the use of Flash or JavaScript could reveal your true identity.
  • “I have nothing to hide, I just want to be able to vote several times in an online newspaper poll and avoid detecting that my IP is repeated”: you don’t need anything more than a proxy (well, or several, it depends on how many times want to vote). If you’re just looking for IP masking and connection speed, there’s no point in turning to a VPN.

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