Cybersecurity is top of mind for most people on the internet today, whether they’re the ones browsing or the ones owning a website. If you’re hoping for a little more security, both proxies and VPNs offer some degree of privacy by hiding your device’s IP address.

For this reason, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. However, there are key differences between a proxy and VPN that can make one a better solution for your device or workforce. Before we cover those, let’s briefly define what a proxy and VPN is.

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What is a proxy?

A proxy server — or proxy for short — is a server located between a client and server that hosts a website (also known as the origin server). Proxies not only process client requests — they also enhance security, speed, and reliability, or optimize the network in another way.

Depending on the type of proxy, it might work on behalf of the client making requests or on behalf of the server receiving requests. A forward proxy sits in front of one or more client machines, and processes both outgoing requests to and incoming responses from an external network (like the internet). A reverse proxy, on the other hand, sits in front of one or more origin servers, and processes and forwards requests from clients.

Using either type of proxy server offers several benefits, the major one being security. Since the forward proxy communicates with other servers on behalf of the client, it hides the client’s IP address, which can reduce the chance of a data breach or other cyber attack. Similarly, a reverse proxy hides the IP addresses of origin servers, which makes it much more difficult for hackers to deploy distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and other targeted attacks.

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network — or VPN for short — is a private network configured within a public network (like the Internet) that hides a client’s IP address and encrypts their data.

A VPN is often equated to a tunnel. Your data travels through the tunnel when entering and exiting a web server, and is encrypted. That means that users connected to a VPN server cannot be tracked by their Internet Service Provider (ISP) or other entities, and are better protected from hackers trying to intercept and read their data.

Now that we understand what a proxy and VPN is respectively, let’s take a closer look at their differences.

Working on the application level means that proxies only reroute the traffic coming from a specific app or browser, whereas VPNs’ ability to work on the operating level means it can redirect all your traffic.  

proxy vs vpn: proxy and vpns process client's requests so their IP addresses are masked but VPN also encyrpts

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Do I need a proxy if I have a VPN?

The short answer: no. Since a proxy and VPN both mask IP addresses, you don’t need both to achieve the same purpose. However, if you also want to encrypt the data you send and receive, then you should use a VPN.

Let’s take a look at some specific situations in which you should use a proxy vs VPN.

When to Use a Proxy vs VPN

A proxy is ideal for browsing the web somewhat anonymously and either bypassing or enforcing content restrictions (like geo-blocked content). A VPN is ideal for those scenarios as well as preventing tracking by your ISP or another service, and securing sensitive data against hackers.

Let’s take a closer look at specific use cases below.

When to Use a Proxy

Considering that proxies only work on the application level, meaning they only reroute the traffic coming from a specific app or browser, and don’t encrypt your traffic, ideal use cases for a proxy are:

1. You want to bypass geo-blocking.

Geo-blocking is the practice of restricting access to certain online content based on users’ geographic location. It works by using tracking and geolocation technology to identify a user’s IP address. Since a proxy server masks a user’s IP address, using a proxy can effectively bypass geo-blocking and allow you to access content that would otherwise be inaccessible.

2. You have a web content policy.

If you run a company or school, it’s likely that you have a web content policy. A proxy can help you enforce that policy by blocking certain websites. More specifically, a proxy will intercept outgoing requests from users on the network and filter out any requests to prohibited websites.

3. You’re on a budget.

Many proxy services are free and high-quality. If you’re hoping to add an additional layer of security to your device but don’t have much (or any) budget to spend, then consider a proxy service.

When to Use a VPN

Considering that VPNs work on the operating system level, meaning they redirect all your traffic, and encrypt that traffic, ideal use cases for a VPN are:

1. You’re handling sensitive data.

Since VPNs encrypt all network traffic, they’re ideal for handling sensitive data. They help you protect this data from your ISP, apps and websites you use, and even the government or other entities that track your data.

2. You’re on public WiFi.

Say you’re at a local cafe and there’s public WiFi. Rather than use this unsecured network, it’s a good idea to use a VPN. That way, if you want to access your bank account or complete a purchase online, your information will be encrypted. This will make it much more difficult for hackers to intercept your data, let alone be able to read it.

3. Your team is working remotely.

If your workforce is remote, then it’s a good idea to invest in a VPN. That way, employees can securely connect to your network and look at sensitive or confidential data on their own devices, no matter how far they are from the office.

Deciding Between a Proxy and VPN

Both a proxy and VPN provide an additional layer of security when browsing the web. Deciding which one is right for your device or business will depend on your needs and budget, among other factors.

The general rule of thumb: if you want your or your employees’ internet traffic to be encrypted, then use a VPN. If you just want to bypass or enforce content restrictions for yourself or your employees, then a proxy server should work better for your needs and budget.

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Originally published Nov 18, 2021 7:00:00 AM, updated November 18 2021

Topics:

Cyber Security