Free proxy servers are unsafe. Nevertheless, numerous users continue using these online services on a global level while ignoring the consequences of using free proxies, whether they know them or not.
People resort to various techniques for uncovering blocked areas of the Internet, especially when it comes to bypassing government censorship in countries classified as enemies of the Internet. Unfortunately, free proxy servers are part of these techniques, although they shouldn’t be.
How a proxy server works
But first, let’s back up a little to understand how it can be used. A proxy server represents a server that acts as a third party between clients and other remote servers. To be more accurate, it processes requests made by clients, such as downloading a file or visiting a website.
A good proxy server uses HTTPS to encrypt all data packets sent across the web. It’s capable of hiding your real IP address when connecting to the Internet, replacing it with a fake one.
Changes your IP address and encrypts your traffic
Under normal circumstances, the websites you visit can track your location by IP. But if the address is fake, then they will pinpoint you somewhere else on the map. Masking your IP address has multiple benefits, such as unlocking content that’s not normally available to your region (including Netflix).
When trying to view a webpage, you might be faced with a geoblocking error. In this case, you can get around this block by associating yourself with a new IP address – one that’s allowed by the webpage. For example, if you want to view the Netflix library from the US but you live in France, then you can switch to an IP address from US and enjoy online streaming from France. All of this can be achieved by proxy servers.
Why free proxy servers are unsafe
When browsing the Internet for a solution to protect your anonymity and unblock websites, you will definitely come across proxy servers, in both free and paid versions. Evidently, the attractive option will always be a free product, no matter what we’re talking about.
Software developers offer free proxy apps to download and install by anyone, seemingly out of generosity. To make things even more seductive, some of them provide online free proxy services: just click the button to hide your IP address and you’re all set.
The user’s mistake is to blindly accept this gratuitous service without even considering the implications. Sadly, the old saying “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably isn’t” applies to free proxies. You might be not paying it with money, but you’re giving the software developer/website owner something better in return: your personal data.
Here are five reasons why we strongly advise you against using free proxy servers:
1. Most of them use HTTP instead of HTTPS
In an independent study conducted by Christian Haschek in 2015 that analyzed the behavior of 443 free proxy servers, it was revealed that 79% of them don’t use HTTPS. This means that your network traffic remains unencrypted when routed through HTTP. Later that year, Haschek performed the same tests on 25,443 free proxies and the results were just as concerning.
What HTTPS does is encode the data sent by users to the proxy provider with the help of an SSL certificate. This is essential when interacting with websites that require you to type passwords or make payments. If a proxy uses HTTP, then it can get hold of the personal information you unintentionally choose to reveal when typing your passwords.
2. They might collect details on your browsing activity
Unencrypted traffic through HTTP instead of HTTPS leaves an open door for hackers attempting to steal your sensitive data, like login credentials and credit card details. It can even be the intentions of the proxy provider – to lure you with a free service while secretly monitoring your traffic.
The type of sensitive information that can be collected about your browsing habits can be visited pages, clicked links or something else. Once that’s done, the free proxy provider can sell it to marketing companies that will filter data, build a report of your online profile, and then create personalized ads they think you will find more attractive based (based on your profile),
3. They might show you ads and steal your cookies
It’s also possible that the free proxy servers intend to steal your cookies, which means that a hacker can take over your Internet session and get hold of your login credentials remembered by your web browser.
4. Some might infect you with malware
Ads can also infect your computer by deploying a virus when you click the banner or link, and let’s face it, we all click ads by accident every now and then. Because the free proxy provider only distributes an ad in its product, it’s not responsible for creating the ad itself.
This means that it can unintentionally send malware along your way because it doesn’t have control over the person or party that created the dangerous ad. On top of that, some malware agents are not designed to hit only your device, but also to spread in your network and infect the devices of your friends.
5. Slow or ineffective service
Most software developers and online services aren’t willing to invest money in a product that’s offered to the world for free, and this certainly applies to free proxy servers. Instead, they use the same public lists of free proxies that can be found on the web.
Since anyone has access to these lists, it’s safe to assume that all websites interested in protecting themselves against anonymizers have already blacklisted the public servers (like Netflix). Subsequently, free proxy services are rendered useless.
Otherwise, if there are any safe public servers left (which haven’t been blacklisted yet), you can imagine that proxy user from all over the world have already taken up the whole bandwidth, slowing down your proxy connection as a result.
How to protect yourself
There are better ways of protecting your online privacy than using free proxy servers. But if you still want to give them a shot, then you can take extra security measures alongside free proxies.
Use a premium VPN service
Virtual private network utilities are superior to free proxies in every way. They are designed to encrypt your traffic using multiple protocols, hide your IP address, and give you access to servers from all over the world.
When opting for a quality VPN app, there’s no risk of losing your data to hackers. Plus, you can unlock website content like foreign Netflix libraries, bypass government censorship, and download torrents, among many other advantages of using a VPN.
Currently, there’s nothing that can beat Tor when it comes to securing your digital privacy, not even VPN services. Tor has a vast network that permits you to anonymously browse even parts of the Internet that haven’t been indexed by search engines (also known as the “dark web”).
However, due to this top-notch level of encryption facilitated by Tor, your Internet connection speed suffers, especially when combining Tor with a VPN service.
Use a premium proxy service
If you find proxy apps more appealing than other solutions when it comes to protecting your online anonymity, you should at least drop free services in favor or premium products.
Behind a premium proxy tool are private servers that nobody else in the world uses. They are maintained by a team of experts whose job is to regularly check for security breaches, fix any issues, and update the list of proxies.
Always use HTTPS
If we still haven’t convinced you to put aside free proxy tools, you can at least take extra precautions to counter the downsides of using free proxies. For instance, it’s essential to access websites through HTTPS only, particularly those dealing with sensitive content, like banks.
An even better idea is to install a browser extension that automatically switches to HTTPS websites and blocks pages that support only HTTP. Examples of such tools are HTTPS Everywhere, Smart HTTPS, ForceHTTPS and KB SSL Enforcer.
Use an ad-blocker
To prevent free proxy services from displaying ads during runtime, there’s no better solution than resorting to an ad blocker. By cutting the source of the problem, you don’t have to worry about getting infected with malware if you accidentally click an ad, or about getting your certificates stolen to disable your antivirus protection.
Use an antivirus
You probably heard this before and even got beat over the head with it: it’s important to have a powerful antimalware application. In case all your security measures against free proxy servers fail, the last line of defense is the antivirus. It can block malware agents before they reach your computer as well as frequently scan your files and disinfect them if necessary.
There are some great options when it comes to free antivirus tools, like Windows Defender (built into Windows, so you don’t have to install anything), Avast Free Antivirus (contains adware) and Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition (no ads). However, premium antimalware solutions bring additional features, like a built-in ad-blocker, ransomware protection, firewall, password manager, or parental control. You can look into various editions offered by Bitdefender, ESET, Avast, and Avira.
Disable browser cookies
We previously talked about the risk of getting your cookies stolen by hackers who want to take control over your browsing session to acquire your login credentials. But you can help stop this from happening by clearing the cookies every time you quit the browser session.
There are two ways to delete browser cookies: by tinkering with browser settings or by opting for browser add-ons which can automatically do this on your behalf. Examples include EditThisCookie for Chrome, Cookie AutoDelete for Firefox, and Self-Destructing Cookies for Opera.
For more information, make sure to check out our article about how to strengthen your online privacy.
Manually set a proxy in your web browser
Instead of turning to free proxy servers which might cause you a lot of damage, you can take the safer route of manually configuring proxy settings in your web browser of choice.
Firstly, you need to get hold of multiple proxies that you can experiment with. There are many websites offering free proxy server lists, such as Free Proxy List, Proxy Nova, US Proxy or Proxy-List.Download.
Secondly, you can test the security of your proxy server with the help of Proxy Checker, an online service developed by Christian Haschek, the same person who identified the security leaks of free proxy servers.
Thirdly, after picking a proxy server that passes the security test, you can pick your favorite web browser, go to its settings page, and set the new proxy configuration. If you went through all steps in the correct manner, you should be able to enjoy the benefits of free proxies without the security risks involved when turning to a third-party software application or online service.
If you want to be cautious about your online security, then it’s better to avoid free proxy services. The best workaround is to go with a premium VPN application since it comes equipped with all the necessary tools for ensuring your online anonymity while preserving connection speed. But there are also additional steps you can take to boost your safety.
We’d love to know what are your preferred free proxy servers as well as alternative solutions for freely navigating the Internet, so please don’t hesitate to drop us a comment in the section below.