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What are proxy servers and how do they work?

Sarah Harris
SH
Sarah Harris

Nov 2, 2022 — 5 min read

Thinking about using a proxy server, or just want to understand how they work? Learn more here.

Hands on a laptop

Looking to boost your data security and improve network performance? A proxy server ― also known as a proxy or application-level gateway ― might be right for you. From school computer labs to large office networks, proxy servers can help many kinds of organizations and individuals secure their internet usage.

What is a proxy server?

A proxy server acts as the middleman between you and your requested web address. Instead of information passing between your personal computer to the websites you’re visiting, it goes through the proxy server.Returning web traffic will also flow through the same proxy server on its way back to you. This eliminates interaction between the actual website and your computer by limiting it to the proxy server. It also masks your IP address, thus enhancing security and privacy.

How proxy servers work

If you have internet access, you have an Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is given to you by your internet service provider (ISP). Like a street address, an IP address gives your computer a unique location on the web, which allows you to send and receive information online. Unfortunately, these interactions can make it easy for others on the internet to track your IP address ― and your physical address, too! That’s where proxy servers come into play.

A proxy server can hide IP addresses to help users keep their internet location and network data secure. When someone goes online and searches for a webpage, his or her request will filter through the proxy server first. Proxy servers change IP addresses before sending users’ web requests on their way, so the receiving server won’t know the sender’s exact location.

Proxies can also encrypt data to keep it secure as it moves throughout the web. When the requested data is coming back through cyberspace to the user’s computer, the proxy server will intercept it again before handing it back. This indirect line of contact between the user’s computer and external computers makes it much trickier for hackers to view data within his or her private network.

Reasons to use a proxy server

Individuals may want to learn how to use a proxy server to monitor what websites their children use. Businesses may want to know how to change IP addresses to reduce cyber attacks and encrypt web requests. No matter what your main reason is for using a proxy, you can look forward to these benefits as well:

  • Privacy & Security: One of the main reasons why people use a proxy server is to increase their privacy and security. Especially in cases of large business networks, proxy servers can be particularly beneficial in keeping unwanted guests out of private files. In fact, proxies are often one of the components of firewalls, which help protect networks from a wider range of online threats.
  • Improved network performance: When a user visits a website, the proxy server will save or “cache” a temporary copy of the website for quick access in the future. When a user wants to access the site again in the future, the proxy can simply pull its cached copy of the data and serve it to the browser quickly and efficiently. This improves bandwidth and provides users with a better network experience.
  • Organizational monitoring: Organizations like businesses and schools often use proxy servers to monitor and control what websites their network users are accessing. For example, social media platforms might be inaccessible to employees to keep them from zoning out on company time. Likewise, schools may block gaming websites to keep students from losing focus on projects. Proxy servers also allow management to log all web requests, so keep in mind that someone knows how much time you spend looking at memes instead of working!
  • Circumventing restrictions: Proxies can help set restrictions on internet users, but they can also help users side-step network restrictions. If you’ve ever traveled abroad and had trouble accessing a website from your home country, a proxy may have helped. Some countries restrict what their citizens can access online, but proxy servers allow browsers to side-step those restrictions and use the internet more freely.

To learn more about web safety, ISPs and other internet topics, browse all the resources available in our Resource Center.

Tips for choosing a proxy server

If you want to secure your IP, proxy servers are an excellent first step. To ensure you’re choosing the best proxy for your network, keep the following steps in mind.

Choose your coverage

There are several different types of proxy servers that offer varying levels of privacy to users. For instance, transparent proxies still reveal a user’s IP address but can filter out restricted content. On the other end of the spectrum, a high anonymity proxy will alter the IP address it substitutes for your own, so your data is much harder to track.

Be wary of “free”

Higher-end computer programs, services and software are usually more expensive than the basic options, which is why you should take free proxy services with a grain of salt. Free proxy servers may not offer reliable security, and could even lead to privacy issues down the road. You should especially avoid proxies that don’t encrypt your data, as unencrypted web requests are open invitations to hackers.

Check the policies

In order to hide your IP address, a proxy server has to know your IP address. It also has to know your web request information. Find out what kind of privacy policies your proxy server upholds ― whether your information is encrypted, saved, etc. You don’t want your server to scam you into sharing your information and losing your web privacy.

Some popular proxies include Smartproxy, Oxylabs and Bright Data.

Difference between a proxy server and a VPN

Both proxy servers and VPNs offer you more security and privacy, but they have some key differences. 

As we mentioned above, a proxy acts as a gateway or middleman between you and the internet. Since you are accessing your desired website, app or program through the proxy, your IP address is hidden. While proxy servers mask your IP address, they do not hide all of your web activity — this is where VPNs come into the picture. 

A VPN stands for  ‘virtual private network.’ It not only hides your IP address but also encrypts all of your web activity. This means that outside entities, like hackers, government agencies, businesses, etc. will not be able to see what you’re doing online. While both VPNs and proxies mask your IP address, a VPN will give you more privacy and security since it encrypts all of your web data.There are many VPN options available, like ExpressVPN, that are trustworthy and capable, so if you’re looking for more online privacy a VPN is a great option.

Ways to track data usage

  • Your router: Some routers do track the amount of data you are using. Use the router’s app or log-in page, and look for a data usage section.
  • Your ISP: Some ISPs provide an app to check on your data and/or a mid-month, opt-in email alert to let you know how much you’ve used to date.
  • Apps: Third-party apps like Glasswire and Data Monitor are available on Google Play and the App Store to monitor data use.

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Alex Sheehan

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Alex Sheehan

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