When it comes to protecting your online privacy, you’ve probably heard the terms proxy and VPN being used. These tools are meant to mask what you’re doing and keep your online activity private. To the average user, a VPN and a Proxy seem to be synonymous. They both essentially do the same thing i.e., keep you safe and hidden online. Some users might just think that a Proxy is another name for a VPN however, that is not the case. There is a distinct difference between a VPN and a Proxy.
A Proxy service redirects traffic from your computer to an intermediary computer/server, and then routes it to where you intended to go. For example, if you’re trying to visit Google.com, and you’re using a proxy service, your request will first be sent to a different computer, and that computer will forward the request to access Google.com. The data that returns will likewise be routed through that same computer.
Think of it like this; you have two countries that cannot trade with each other due to legal restrictions but both want to import and export products from the other country. In order to do this, the countries will export their goods to a third, neutral country and import items from the other country from this third one. It’s complicated but it gets the job done. A proxy does this but for online activity, it gives users the benefit of hiding their IP address.
A VPN service is far more complex than a Proxy service. It does what a Proxy service does, and more. VPNs add a layer of encryption and security to the data that is sent. They are a collection of servers that work via a client installed on your device (desktop or mobile) and the second you connect to a VPN, all data sent from your device is encrypted.
Your VPN will most likely reroute traffic but it will also encrypt it so that no one knows what you’re sending or receiving. Continuing with the same example of the two countries that cannot trade directly from the previous section, a VPN in that example would be if the two countries were to export goods to a third country. The third country would then rebrand them so that there is no evidence as to where they were originally manufactured from. The goods would then be exported.
Difference Between VPN and Proxy
The major difference between a VPN and a Proxy is encryption. Some proxies claim to hide your IP address, and some do but not all of them are successful against services that do not allow anonymous web traffic. A proxy is a watered down, basic privacy tool that will work in some cases but not all. A VPN is far more robust; it has multiple servers that traffic is routed through and if one server goes down or is blocked, there is always a second server to take its place.
The traffic sent through a VPN is always encrypted and you’re given a second IP address to mask your actual IP address.
A proxy works mostly with web traffic sent from your browser whereas a VPN will encrypt every single request sent from your computer. All background services that need to access the internet such as update requests will also be encrypted. The encryption will extend to all desktop apps and services instead of being limited to just your browser.
VPNs are often faster than proxy services. A good, fast proxy service that promises data encryption and a hidden IP address is a basic VPN service. Proxy services mainly reroute traffic so they have few servers to route them through and thus your requests take longer to complete. VPNs on the other hand have a much larger network of computers that can handle more requests simultaneously thus making them faster.
Because a VPN is a much more robust service, you’re less prone to seeing errors or failed requests whereas a proxy service might not work well or at all if it has too many users.
Picking A Service
By now, you should know that there is a small but distinct difference between a VPN and a Proxy and that should help you decide what you want to use.
A proxy service is best used for low level privacy needs, or when you need to fake your location for something minor like watching a regionally restricted YouTube video. If you’re trying to watch regionally restricted content on Netflix, a VPN is going to do the trick.
This is because YouTube doesn’t go to great lengths to block users who try and fake their location. Netflix on the other hand actively thwarts them and VPNs, the good ones like NordVPN or ExpressVPN, will constantly update their servers and available IP addresses to get around whatever Netflix is doing to keep you out. Similarly, for services like Hulu, Spotify, Pandora, you need a reliable VPN and a proxy simply won’t do.
With respect to privacy, a VPN is always the superior option. Proxies don’t encrypt data and those that do aren’t worth it. It’s better to opt for a VPN that will do all that and more in more or less the same price.