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VPN or Proxy: The Mystery of Online Privacy Revealed

VPN and Proxy: What's the Difference? VPNs and proxies allow you to change the outside world's perception of your web traffic, but they are fundamentally different technologies. We'll explain which one is best for you.

VPNs dominate the privacy conversation, but there's a similar technology that hasn't received the same attention: the humble proxy. We asked experts from two major VPN providers what the difference is and whether you need one, both, or neither. Sure, both companies have an interest in promoting VPN services, but they remain experts in how privacy products work. Additionally, most VPN services offer proxies in the form of browser extensions with their VPN service.

If you search for "best proxy", you will find a category of products that are not the ones we are talking about here. Many companies advertise access to their proxy networks and large pools of available IP addresses, far more than the average consumer needs. They advertise their usefulness in web scraping and managing numerous social media accounts, which seems more than a little confusing. We haven't reviewed these companies, but we're confident they're not a good choice for consumers looking to improve their online privacy (or even spoof their location for video streaming).

What is a Proxy? (Hint: It's Not a VPN)

So, what do we mean when we compare VPNs and proxies? Proxies are like cousins of VPNs. Like a VPN, a proxy redirects your web traffic to make it appear as if it's coming from somewhere else, hiding your real IP address in the process. Kiril Mikulskij, head of NordVPN's network engineering team, explained that proxies work by "carrying your traffic between your client machine and a proxy server, encapsulating it in some kind of external header." Like a VPN, a proxy sends your web traffic to the proxy server, which, Mikulskij said, sends it back out onto the internet.

A VPN, Mikulskij said, adds layers to this basic process. "A VPN works very similarly but in addition to encapsulation, we add encryption by default and make sure packets are authenticated."

With a VPN, you can be reasonably sure that all your web traffic is encrypted, but that's not always the case with proxies. Laurent Fasnacht, who leads R&D at Proton VPN, 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, encrypt user traffic.

“I would strongly recommend not using unencrypted proxies, as they offer no protection,” Fasnacht said. "Today, encryption should be the norm for any service. There is absolutely no excuse not to use it." Another key difference is how connections are made. "With the VPN server, it's kind of a tunnel that will stay there," Fasnacht said. VPN connections are usually managed at the operating system level and apply to all web traffic from your machine. "Every time your computer wants to send 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 will not work for another application on your machine. This leaves plenty of opportunity for web traffic to leave your machine outside of the proxy connection.

Do You Need a Proxy?

Make sure you empathize with your readers. Highlight their frustrations and then explain how a certain product might (or might not) help them. It is important to identify the most common problems and find out if the product can solve them.

If you're comparing different products, try including a chart or table that clearly states similarities and differences. It will be easier for readers to choose the option that's right for them.

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Fasnacht said that while VPNs encrypt all traffic from your machine, they often require higher-level permissions to do so. A proxy, however, can be configured without any special permissions. There are several sites on the web that work as proxies, where you type a URL and navigate to the destination site through the proxy site in your browser.

You may remember them from a reckless youth spent trying to evade your high school's internet restrictions.

Mikulskij similarly noted that if you're only interested in unblocking websites, changing your public IP address, or making your traffic look like it's coming from somewhere else, you can do this quickly and easily with a proxy.

He pointed out that many VPNs offer many servers in multiple locations, as well as additional privacy tools that potentially make them more attractive.

Fasnacht and Mikulskij also agreed that it makes no sense to use a VPN and a proxy at the same time. Routing web traffic through a VPN alone will always reduce speed and performance, and adding the extra layer of complexity of a proxy makes it a recipe for bad performance.

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