In these times of growing Internet user concern for security and privacy, it may be that as we delve into these issues we will come across two technologies (“VPN” and “proxy”) that may seem similar in many ways, but whose differences are quite relevant.
Certainly, both technologies allow us to connect to remote computers, thus facilitating masking our IP address. But depending on the specific use that we want to give this capacity (circumvent geoblocks?, Avoid cyber surveillance?) We will be more interested in opting for one or the other.
This is a proxy …
When we are browsing the World Wide Web, the usual thing is that our computer connects directly to the web server that we are visiting and the page in question is downloaded so that we can view it.
But when we connect through a proxy, we use this as an intermediary for all web traffic, in such a way that we send our viewing request to the proxy, it forwards it to the website we want to visit, and when it responds to the proxy, it forwards all the information to us so that we can view the web.
Regarding the server, it is not the IP of the user who accesses the web, but that of the proxy. This, in addition to granting us anonymity, allows us to circumvent content restrictions based on geolocation: if we tried to use a Spanish Netflix account from the US, the platform would not allow it. But we would avoid that problem by accessing through a Spanish proxy.
Problem: the proxy server will know our IP address. If the proxy service is not reliable, we have hidden ourselves from some only to expose ourselves to others.
… and this is a VPN
Like the proxy, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is also a server that routes our online traffic. But where the proxy only routes requests from a single application (typically from the web browser), a VPN service is able to do that with all traffic of our network.
And it doesn’t just route it: it tunnels it. Thus, all the traffic that circulates between the VPN client and the server will be encrypted and authenticated (using TLS or IPSec protocols).
This is important because where the proxy was limited to anonymize us but left the door open for criminals or state forces to intercept our traffic (that is, our access credentials, browsing history, etc.), a VPN protects us against this eventuality.
It has to be said all: this extra protection means that VPN services will typically offer a lower traffic speed than those offered by a proxy.
Which one do I choose, then?
The above explained already provides enough clues about what kind of use each service will be most useful for. But let’s analyze some more casuistry:
“I do not have anything to hide, I just want to be able to vote several times in an online newspaper polland preventing them from detecting that my IP is repeated “: you don’t need anything more than a proxy (well, or several, it depends on how many times you want to vote). If you are only looking for IP masking and connection speed, it doesn’t make sense for you to resort to a VPN.