What is a proxy?

A proxy server functions as an online middleman when you don't want to (or are unable to) connect to websites directly.

In most situations, the word proxy means a “stand-in” for something else. For example, in voting, a proxy is an entity authorized by you to vote on your behalf. But in computing, a proxy is a stand-in of a different type. People who try to access a blocked website at an office, school, or country that curtails Internet freedoms probably know what to expect when asking for a proxy meaning or definition.

What is a proxy server?

A proxy server is something of an online middleman. In a nutshell, a proxy server functions as your bridge on the Internet when you don’t want to (or are unable to) connect to websites directly. Such proxies can potentially enhance your security, privacy and help you bypass content filters and geo-blocks. They can also cache website content and load them faster in certain circumstances. However, some types of proxies can be used to filter or censor content and don’t improve online privacy.

How does a proxy work?

Whenever you visit a website, information travels between your computer (the client) and the website’s computer (the server). But when you use a proxy, you use an intermediary computer that sits between your computer and the server. In other words, your device only communicates with the proxy while the proxy relays your messages to the servers on the Internet. It also shares all the replies from the server with your computer.

How does a proxy protect my privacy and security?

Some proxy servers help protect your privacy by masking your IP (Internet Protocol) address with their own. Instead of your IP address, a website sees the IP address shown by the proxy. An IP address is something like a digital signature. It’s a unique string of characters that identifies any machine that uses Internet Protocol, the set of guidelines that govern the Internet.

It can be beneficial to hide your IP address because a hacker, troll, stalker, or any other type of bad actor can use it to learn more about you, like your general geographical location. Cybercriminals can also use your IP address to target you with scams that may sound convincing because they involve information about your location. Similarly, law enforcement officials or state actors may also use an IP address to track something through an ISP (Internet Service Provider).

While proxies can be used to shield your IP address, they can also be used to block access to certain websites. For instance, an employer or school may use some types of proxy servers to block access to social media pages or adult websites. They may use these proxies to enhance productivity by restricting access to websites that might distract employees from work.  

Kinds of proxy servers

There are many different types of proxy servers with various features. While some help Internet users bypass censorship, others function as a censorship tool. Here are some of the more common kinds of proxies:

Transparent proxies

Transparent proxies aren’t about the cloak and dagger life. They don’t hide your IP address or their existence. Transparent proxies only exist to filter content or cache content. Organizations like high schools, offices, and airports may use such technology to block access to some websites. Libraries may also use transparent proxies to filter content and cache data.

Anonymous proxies

Anonymous proxies, also known as distorting proxies, distort your IP address. A website won’t see your actual IP address when you use such a service. However, websites will still know that you’re hiding behind an anonymous proxy.

High anonymous proxies

Think of a high anonymity proxy as the Susan Storm (the Invisible Woman) of proxies. Not only do high anonymity proxies periodically change your IP address, but they also use trickery to convince websites that you’re not connecting through a proxy. With a high anonymity proxy, you may be able to access websites that block proxies.

Are proxies the same as VPNs?

Proxies and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) have some similarities. For example, both can mask your IP address with a different one and connect you to the Internet through an intermediary server. But only VPNs encrypt your data. Malwarebytes Privacy VPN uses a 256-bit key for encryption. It would take billions of years to crack 256-bit encryption keys with current technology.

Is it safe to use any proxy?

While a proxy can protect your privacy from bad actors on the Internet, what about the proxy itself? After all, a proxy operator can potentially see your Internet activity or infect you with malware. Interestingly, researcher Christian Haschek tested 443 open proxies and found that most were engaging in suspicious behavior.

Whether you use a VPN or a proxy, choose a reputable service that also has the server capacity to offer a seamless Internet experience. Unlike most proxies, a VPN with many servers can keep you anonymous and offer good speeds for browsing websites or streaming videos. 

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