A Beginners Guide to Proxy Servers and VPNs

wwwPrivacy considerations aren’t just for those with something to hide.

Most people today use the Internet for shopping, banking and business , and would like to do so privately.

If you use the Internet at home then you are relatively secure , but using the Internet when traveling is a different matter altogether.

To address these problems there are many companies and organisations offering various privacy solutions based on Proxy servers and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks).

In this tutorial we look at how VPNs and Proxies work and the difference between them.

Who Needs Them?

If you:

  • Travel and Use Public Wi-Fi Connections.
  • Share a Wi-Fi Connection with Others that you don’t know or trust
  • Need To surf the web Anonymously.
  • Want To access Geographically restricted Content.
  • Worried about your Internet Privacy.

then you should take a look at VPNs and Proxy servers.

Proxy Servers- How they Work

Proxy servers are very common in corporate networks where they are used for controlling access to the web.

Because they can control access to websites they are also used by ISPs (Internet Service Providers) like BT to provide services like parental controls.

They are also becoming more popular for normal users who wish to browse the web anonymously.

The way it works is that instead of connecting directly to the website the user connects to the proxy and the proxy connects to the website.

using-proxy-serverThis means that the website sees the IP address of the proxy server, and not the IP address of the user which allows the user to remain anonymous.

Proxy servers can, in many circumstances, also allow users access to blocked websites. as the blocking servers are usually on the corporate network or ISP, and they don’t know what sites are being accessed via the proxy.

In addition, if the user’s ISP blocks certain sites by IP address, then they will allow the user access to these sites.

This is because they don’t know that the user is accessing these sites, as they only see the access to the Proxy server.

Problems with Using Proxy Servers

1. Proxy servers work at the application protocol level (see Understanding the OSI Model) )and so can only be used for traffic that uses this protocol. This is normally http.

In plain English this means they generally only work for accessing websites using a web browser.

2. Because all traffic is sent through the proxy you are likely to experience a much slower connection than normal.

3. The Proxy server becomes a security issue as it knows all about you. Can you really trust it? This is especially true when using free Proxy servers.

4. Not all web services will work through a proxy server

5. Not all proxy servers use SSL.

VPNs (Virtual Private Networks)- How they Work

VPN or Virtual Private Network is a way of using a public network to carry private data.

A VPN provides a secure and private connection for all traffic from your computer/device, and not just for web browsing traffic.

A VPN works by encrypting the internet connection between your device and the VPN end point.

Usually the VPN endpoint is a VPN Gateway located somewhere on the Internet.

The Diagram below depicts a standard internet Connection.


In a standard internet connection the connection can be monitored anywhere along the path from your machine to the the destination server.

The Diagram below shows the same Connection but this time using a VPN Gateway.

VPN-GatewayNow the Connection between you and the VPN gateway is secure and only the connection between the gateway and destination server is potentially vulnerable.

The connection to the destination server could also be encrypted, if for example, it was a banking server.

A VPN connection supports any application protocol.

So that it could be carrying http or https, ftp or ftps.

The main problem with this is that the VPN gateway is a potential bottleneck, and security risk.

A VPN could also be configured End to End as depicted below:

This is common practice for securely linking corporate offices together across the Internet.

SSL (secure sockets layer)

You should note that SSL is the technology that makes your data secure by encrypting it.

SSL connections are used for online shopping, and other services and don’t require you signing up to any service.

The only problem is that you rely on the web server to require it, and currently only servers that need security use it e.g banks and shopping sites.

Google search uses SSL, but this only protects your search data from anyone monitoring your Internet Connection, it doesn’t protect it from Google.

Google still knows who you are, and what you search for.

However if you do a search via a proxy server or VPN then Google doesn’t know about you unless you happen to be logged into a Google account when you do it.

Who Needs To Use A Proxy or VPN Connection

If you only use the Internet at home then you don’t really need to use a VPN connection, at least for security purposes.

However if you travel a lot and use the Internet over public Wi-fi connections then you certainly should consider using VPN or be very careful only to use the web for browsing, and not for banking, shopping etc.

Proxy servers are very useful for anonymous web surfing. It hides your surfing activity from ISPs, and anyone who wants to obtain your data from your ISP.

Please note, that your surfing activity is still recorded on your computer in the browser history unless you take other steps to remove it.

Common Questions and Answers

Q- Should I use a proxy server or a VPN?

A- A proxy server is meant for anonymous browsing, but isn’t necessarily secure. A VPN is secure and always uses SSL to encrypt your data.It works for all applications on your device and not just your web browser.

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