A proxy server is a utility that can be used to hide your IP address, protect your privacy, and unlock inaccessible websites. But there is a lot more to know about the Internet circumvention tool to understand why it is indispensable to some users.
In this article, we are breaking down proxies to find out what they are, how they work, and how many types are there. After, we can narrow down the advantages and disadvantages of using proxies so that you can decide it they are the right fit for you.
Here is a rundown of the topics you will stumble upon in the following text (click to jump):
- What is a proxy server
- Hoes does it work
- Types of proxy servers
- The pros of using proxy servers
- The cons and dangers of using proxy servers
- Using a proxy server
When you go online to visit a website, chat with a friend, download a file, or upload content, you establish a connection between your computer (the client) and a remote device (the server). To create this link, the client and server swap IP addresses to confirm identities. If the connection is run through a secure protocol like SSL, then handshake negotiation takes place between the client and server. Its purpose is to confirm authentication and exchange private keys to facilitate a secure session.
But most Internet users are not comfortable with exposing their IP address due to privacy-related reasons. Your IP can be used to pinpoint your location, block your access on certain sites, track your browsing habits and sell it to marketing agencies, create targeted ads, display varying prices, and hack your computer to steal your data.
Your ISP is in charge of assigning your IP address. But you cannot ask them to replace it because the new IP address would be publicly disclosed, too. This is where proxies intervene.
What is a proxy server
A proxy server is software installed on a common device just like your computer, which lends you its IP address and lets you assume its identity (fake IP address). For example, if the device is based in the US, it means that it has a IP address assigned by an American ISP. When you connect to the proxy, you also receive its American IP address: this is what the Internet thinks, anyway. It does not actually change your IP address but hides it from web services.
The proxy is the middleman between clients and servers. It acts like an intermediary that works for the best interest of both clients and servers. The proxy server can be anywhere: on a device on the other side of the world, forwarding requests through the firewall, or even on a web server installed on your local computer. Some proxy services are hosted on several computers worldwide so that you can choose between many IP addresses to connect.
Using a fake IP address comes with many benefits, such as safely downloading torrents, accessing blocked streaming services, evading government censorship, and preventing your ISP from learning your browsing habits. All of them have one thing in common: protected online privacy, a feat achieved by proxy servers.
How does it work
Let us assume that you (the client) send a request to the proxy server to assist you with visiting a site on the Internet. The proxy accepts your request (agrees to help), processes the information (understands that you want to visit a site), measures the complexity of the request (looks for the shortest path to load the site), and fulfills it after finding an optimal solution that saves both time and resources (displays the loaded site).
There are two ways to fulfill your request and load the webpage: slower and faster. The slower path is to establish a connection to the site, wait until the page is loaded, then forward the reply to you. The faster path involves checking the proxy cache to see if you or anyone else already made the same request in the past. If so, the proxy does not need to forward the request to the Internet but skips to loading the page. It is faster. The cache is always verified before choosing the slower path, and the slower path is taken only if cache data does not exist.
Hides your IP address to protect your privacy
A proxy hides your IP address from your ISP, but it cannot encrypt your data. When using a proxy, you send a request to the ISP (as it normally happens), the ISP redirects your traffic to the proxy, and then the proxy lends you its IP address so that you can access blocked sites while protecting your privacy. The ISP can still see your data and that you are using a proxy server. However, when other users such as you turn to proxy services, it is impossible for the ISP to associate users with the data being sent .
For instance, a search engine like Google works like a proxy server. You (the client) type the info you want to find on the web and press Enter to make the request. Google receives and processes the data, and then it returns relevant search results by retrieving contents from its cache or third-party websites (servers).
The client can request anything, like opening a page, downloading a file, or just establishing a connection to a remote server. Proxy servers were created to undertake distributed systems by adding structure and encapsulation. However, they have evolved into tools that improve the browsing experience of regular Internet users.
Types of proxy servers
We are not going to go through all of them because the list is too long and continuously expanding as new proxy methods are born. Also, most proxies are in overlapping categories. Instead, here are the most common types of proxy servers:
A forward proxy is faced toward the online environment and used by the client to acquire data. It can exist on the Internet or the client’s private network. There are several types of forward proxy servers, like open proxy, HTTP proxy, SOCKS proxy and web proxy.
Clients can resort to forward proxies to get past firewalls and bypass government censorship, like unlocking the content of blocked websites. They can also be used for lifting restrictions set by network administrators, like getting banned from a site. All of this is possible thanks to privacy protection that comes with hiding your IP address.
To optimize a private network, you can instruct a forward proxy to act like a cache server. Repeated data requests are temporarily memorized to the cache so that the proxy can quickly retrieve information from the cache the next time it is requested, instead of wasting time and resources on a new operation with identical search parameters.
A reverse proxy server is faced toward the private network and used by server administrators to control, optimize and protect server access. The website administrator can instruct it to handle server caching, load balancing, and user authentication.
In the perspective of a casual Internet user who wants to acquire a piece of information, the forward proxy is the sender, and the reverse proxy is the receiver. It is possible for multiple web servers to hide behind the reverse proxy of a website, each dealing with its own tasks.
Requests made by forward proxies are processed by the reverse proxy and forwarded to the corresponding web server, depending on the request type (e.g. a web server for caching, another one for authentication).
An open proxy can be freely accessed by any Internet users. It is a forwarding proxy server. Under normal circumstances, proxies give permission to users within a particular network group to forward Internet requests so that it can preserve bandwidth. But any user from the Internet can use the forwarding service when it comes to open proxies.
An anonymous proxy server does not hide the fact that it is a server and does not reveal the IP address of the connected clients. Therefore, users can turn to an anonymous open proxy to protect their online privacy. It hides their IP address from web servers and broadcasts the proxy’s IP address instead. However, the solution is not foolproof and true anonymity cannot be achieved for two reasons.
Firstly, website admins are capable of identifying the real IP address used by the client with the aid of client-side scripts. Secondly, open proxy servers often record and store logs of client activities.
In addition to compromising user privacy, anonymous open proxies come with a high degree of security risks. Computers can act like open proxies without the owner’s knowledge. It can lead to invalid proxy configuration and accidental malware infections (server zombies, spoofing).
A transparent proxy server reveals that it is a server but exposes the first IP address with the help of HTTP headers. It is also known as forced proxy, inline proxy, or intercepting proxy.
A transparent proxy does not make any changes to the requests or replies, except what is necessary for proxy authentication and identification. Subsequently, data is processed in the original, unmodified format. This makes it a tunneling proxy server (or gateway, or router).
Transparent proxies can be used for website caching, content filtering, traffic monitoring, censorship, Internet access restriction, and for safeguarding websites against DDoS attacks. No particular configuration is needed.
Compared to a transparent one, a non-transparent proxy server has the ability to make modifications to the client’s request or response. The goal is to add more information to the user agent, like anonymity filtering mode, protocol cutback, or media type alteration.
Web browsers and other client apps can detect when non-transparent proxy servers are being used. It can become a tedious task to configure all the necessary settings, but it contributes to putting together a versatile proxy server.
An HTTP proxy server is designed to process only HTTP and HTTPS requests, excluding any other kinds of requests. It acts like an HTTP client and an HTTP server. HTTP client requests are accepted from a web browser and forwarded to the Internet after carefully examining the data packets for anything suspicious, like traces of spyware, hacking or other malware.
The proxy adds management, security and caching features. For example, HTTP proxies can be utilized for concealing the real identity of a server, bypassing security controls, uncensoring content, imposing control access policies, or permitting websites to send requests to external servers.
Because it was originally made for browsing the Internet, an HTTP proxy is compatible with any browser, thus gaining popularity among web users. Even a few VPN services use HTTP proxies. The two most frequently used ports for HTTP proxies are 80 and 8080.
Elite, anonymous, and transparent HTTP proxy
Users can choose between three types of HTTP proxy servers: elite, anonymous, and transparent. Elite mode (also known as high anonymity proxy server) does not modify the HTTP request fields and masks your IP address from the web server admin. It hides the fact that it is a proxy, making it ideal for using against sites that block proxy requests. Your IP address is changed periodically.
Anonymous mode still hides your IP address but changes the request fields. The web server can effortlessly figure out you are behind a proxy and, although it will not be able to identify your real IP address, it can block proxy requests.
Transparent mode, as we previously discussed, cannot be used as an anonymizer tool because it tells the server that you are behind a proxy, along with your real IP address. On the other hand, transparent HTTP proxies are excellent for improving performance by caching data.
Unlike an HTTP proxy, a SOCKS proxy server accepts and forwards all types of requests, not just HTTP and HTTPS. It is a general-purpose proxy server that processes all raw information, making the SOCKS proxy versatile for all network protocols and ports: FTP, SMTP, POP, HTTP, Telnet, TCP, IPv6, DNS, SSH, and so on. It often uses port 1080.
A SOCKS proxy server does not make any modifications to the requests and responses, which means it is a transparent proxy. It can be used for bypassing firewalls and accessing resources on external servers.
There are two types of SOCKS proxy servers: SOCKS4 and SOCKS5. The main difference between the two is that SOCKS4 supports only TCP applications while SOCKS5 adds UDP support and security features like DNS and various authentication methods.
Residential IP proxy
A residential IP proxy server conceals your true IP address when going online. It provides you with an IP address connected to a real device that has a physical location. ISPs own and register residential IP addresses in public databases, which helps websites pinpoint a device’s info, like ISP and location.
Because the IP address is associated with a device, websites have a more difficult time telling apart the residential IP proxy server from a genuine IP address. It is ideal for streaming content that gets blocked due to geographical restrictions and uploading or downloading torrents.
However, there is a limit set by search engines to the number of requests issued by the same IP address. If you surpass this limit, you may risk a temporary ban.
Residential rotating IP proxy
While standard residential IP proxy servers conceal your IP address behind a different IP, rotating residential proxies put you behind a pool of multiple proxies. Also known as backconnect proxies, they are scheduled to automatically change on every session or at fixed intervals.
Rotating residential proxies resolve the previously discussed problem with too many requests made by the same IP address. You will not have to wait before making new requests, and there will not be a risk of exposing your real IP address.
Datacenter IP proxy
Datacenter IP proxy servers are more common than residential ones. The main difference between the two is that ISPs do not assign the datacenter IPs. Instead, websites can trace back such IPs to corporations or independent datacenters to discover information like corporation name, owner and location (but not your real IP address).
Examples of corporations which offer datacenter hosting are Amazon Web Services (AWS), DigitalOcean, and Microsoft Azure Cloud. Datacenter IP proxy servers (also known as dedicated proxies) are cheaper than residential versions. But they are also less reliable because anyone can obtain the IPs with minimum effort.
Internet users who want to spam or hack websites typically resort to datacenter IPs. As such, web servers are capable of detecting and blocking requests made by datacenter proxies if they suspect any malicious activity. Even so, dedicated proxies provide better speed than residential IPs.
A DNS proxy server is a proxy server that accepts DNS queries made by networks (usually private) and forwards them to a DNS on the Internet. It is also capable of saving DNS requests to cache, in order to improve performance.
ISPs are responsible for DNS servers, so they vary by the mode of implementation of each ISP. There are no guarantees of getting the best possible security and webpage loading speed. Therefore, you can turn to custom DNS proxy servers to improve these aspects and to prevent DNS IP leaks.
For example, Google Public DNS is a free and public DNS proxy server that delivers high speed and protection against DDoS attacks. It is not needed to install any special software to be able to use a DNS proxy server. Settings can be configured within the operating system.
A web proxy server represents a proxy that sits between you and the website you are visiting. Using a web proxy means masking your IP address before establishing a connection to a website.
HTTP requests are forwarded by a web proxy. They look like typical HTTP requests, except for the fact that the web proxy passes the full URL, not just the path.
The HTTP CONNECT method is sometimes configured on web proxy servers to forward unfiltered data. For instance, port 443 is usually forwarded to enable HTTPS traffic passthrough. Some web proxy server examples are Squid, Privoxy, IIS, and Apache.
A caching proxy server intervenes when clients make duplicate requests, either the same or different clients. After it fulfills the first request, it saves the response to history (cache). Next time it receives the same request and notices it meets the same conditions, it retrieves a copy of the content from the cache. This way, it can immediately send a reply from the cache instead of wasting resources to perform the same operation.
The role of a caching proxy is to accelerate service requests. Its impact is more significant on large organizations (like ISPs), as it can help minimize costs for maintaining bandwidth usage while improving performance. Multiple users can share the resources stored on the caching proxy server, such as documents, images, web pages, or other files.
A translation proxy server is a proxy that translates a website into multiple languages and keeps translations updated. It is dedicated to companies that want to reach out to the global audience. The proxy works by dynamically replacing content from the original website into the target languages.
To keep the site running at optimal parameters, text translation is not performed every time a visitor accesses a page. Instead, the translation proxy server retrieves the content from its translation memory. To some degree, it works similarly to caching proxies.
The website should have a simple structure to be able to implement a translation proxy with ease. It should not require remarkable modifications so that the proxy can carry out tasks automatically (by a machine). To make the translation accurate, the proxy can use human translation, or a combination of human and machine translation.
A translation proxy server example is Google Translate.
A distorting proxy is a proxy server that broadcasts its presence on a website as a proxy but emits a wrong IP address. It is non-transparent because it changes your HTTP headers to add an incorrect IP address. It might also have a feature to hide the fact that it is a server, but this can be easily discovered by websites with the appropriate tools.
The pros of using proxy servers
There are many advantages to using proxies, and here are the most important ones:
- Hide your real IP address and location to protect your online privacy.
- Public proxy servers are free to use, unless you are interested in using premium services.
- Overcome government censorship and view forbidden content.
- Get access to streaming services and media libraries that are only available in other countries, like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.
- Escape blocks set by your school, college or campus to access blocked websites.
- Prevent your ISP from tracking your browsing activity, collecting logs and selling your information to third parties, such as marketing agencies that create targeted ads.
- Check out competing companies by visiting their websites without exposing your identity.
- Facilitate security, administrative control and caching services within a company.
- Lift restrictions set by search engines related to the number of requests that can be issued by the same IP address.
- Access websites by getting past bans set for your true IP address, like when you are traveling to a foreign country.
The cons and dangers of using proxy servers
The disadvantages of using proxies should not be overlooked since it is a matter of compromising privacy and security:
- The owner of the proxy server knows your actual IP address even if it concealing it. It can use this information to sell your browsing details to marketing companies in exchange for profit.
- Because public proxies are free to use, anyone can connect to them, so you might experience busy traffic. In fact, Internet connections can slow down to a halt if too many users are connected to the same proxy.
- Websites can block specific proxy requests if they detect that a proxy is being used, making the entire service useless. Even your employers or ISP can block proxy requests.
- You cannot prevent your ISP from throttling your bandwidth (if you are downloading torrents or streaming videos, for example).
- Using an encrypted proxy server (like an HTTPS proxy or SOCKS5 proxy with SSL tunnel) to protect your sensitive info when connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots is not foolproof. Skilled hackers can exploit the proxy server with SSL encryption to acquire your personal information and even perform man-in-the-middle attacks to tamper with your data.
- Website owners can inject malware into their proxy servers to infect your computer instead of fulfilling your client requests (also known as proxy hacking). It is particularly dangerous when not using reputable proxy services.
- Misconfigured caching proxy servers might confuse the client requests, so they might store account credentials to the server instead of just using the data for authentication.
Using a proxy server
If you want to use a proxy server, you can connect to web service that provides you with immediate access to the pages you want to access. For example, the free web proxy of HideMyAss lets you select a preferred server, encrypt the URL, disable cookies, and remove scripts when visiting a website: you just have to enter the site’s address and click a button to connect. KProxy and CroxyProxy work in a similar manner.
An alternative is to tinker with your system’s or browser’s settings to apply a proxy configuration. Browsers automatically detect configurations for HTTP, SSL, FTP and SOCKS, but they also let you specify manual settings.
Free proxy lists can be obtained from all over the web, such as Free Proxy List and Proxy-List.Download, so you just have to pick and add a proxy address. To find out how to set proxy settings in your favorite browser, check out this article (at Web browser and system built-in proxy settings).
In fact, it is possible to apply a proxy configuration to any application that supports a proxy feature, including torrent clients. However, if you want to be cautious about your online privacy, then you should test the security of your free proxy with the help of Proxy Checker. Better yet, you should avoid free proxy servers altogether and opt for premium services instead.
Taking everything into account, a proxy server offers an excellent solution for concealing your IP address and protecting your online privacy. There are numerous web-based services that you can explore for free, but we recommend going for a premium solution to avoid malware attackers and scammers fixated on stealing your data.
What are your go-to proxy servers? Or do you prefer other ways to safeguard your Internet privacy? Let us know in the comment section below.