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Secure online browsing and internet service use have become more important than ever.  Between high-profile hacks and data breaches, an ever-increasing world of malware, adware, and spyware, and “big data” tracking and collecting your every move and activity online, many people desire a way to be invisible and anonymous.  Both anonymous proxy services and anonymous VPN services offer varying degrees of online anonymity and security protection, with associated pros and cons.  But what exactly are these services, and what are their similarities and differences?

Both route Internet traffic to a separate server or computer, before it goes on to its intended destination – that much in common between the two.   However, they definitely have some different strengths and different uses.  They also both function in somewhat different ways from one another.

What is an Anonymous Proxy?

An anonymous proxy server (or just a proxy, for short) serves as a middle-man between the user’s computer and the ultimate destination of Internet browsing traffic.  It can either be accessed via the browser (and an address typed in directly in the proxy’s web page interface,) or through a stand-alone program or browser extension, which will cover all of your HTTP/HTTPS Internet browsing traffic while active.  While there are some proxies of different types that can work for torrenting, online gaming, and similar, these are generally far less common, more complex, and paid services, and not typically what people mean when they talk about an anonymous web proxy.

When using a proxy, traffic goes from your system, through various servers and hops, to the proxy server, before it ever goes to your destination site.  At the proxy, the traffic is re-broadcast to the destination server, which “sees” the traffic as coming from the proxy’s IP address, rather than your real IP address.  As traffic comes back from the destination to the proxy, it knows who to route the traffic to, and passes it on to you at your true IP address.  The proxy knows your real address, but all the servers you access on the web do not.

Altering the IP address is pretty much all proxies are designed to do.  They allow you to hide your true IP address and be somewhat anonymous online with your Internet browsing.  At the same time, using a proxy server based in another country can allow you to get around some geo-restrictions on content since the IP address is what destination servers that block content based on the country use to determine where you are located.

Examples of anonymous web proxies include Hidester, KPROXY, and Megaproxy.  Many VPN services also offer web proxy options for browsing traffic, when you don’t want to connect to the service itself or run all of your traffic through the service, as we’ll discuss a bit more in the next section.

What is an Anonymous VPN?

Anonymous VPN services are a bit more complicated and offer more robust and varied features compared to a proxy server.  VPN providers usually offer clients or apps for various operating systems, smartphones, tablets, etc.  The user downloads the appropriate client (and usually pays for a subscription to the service), then signs in and connects to a server on the VPN’s network.  Once connected, ALL internet traffic (not just web browsing over HTTP/HTTPS, but things like torrenting, FTP, gaming – any network services – all run through the VPN).  Traffic between the user and the VPN server is encrypted or rendered into gibberish, essentially, with military-grade encryption protocols.  This means that government or ISP monitors cannot read the traffic, or tell what you are accessing – just that you are transmitting data back and forth to a particular VPN server, then the trail goes cold.

Once the traffic gets to the VPN server, though, it does act similar to how a proxy works.  The VPN server decrypts the traffic and determines where it should be routed.  It passes it on to the destination server, that only sees the IP address of the VPN server, and not your true IP address, keeping you secure and anonymous.  Then the process works in reverse for traffic coming back to you from the destination server, going to the VPN server, which processes it, knows your true IP, encrypts the data, and passes it back to your system through an encrypted tunnel, where your system decrypts the data.  There are also often other security measures built into VPN clients and apps, providing added layers of user security and privacy, and most of the better providers support video streaming, peer-to-peer file sharing via torrenting, and other activities (whereas most web proxies are just for Internet browsing).

Top VPN providers include companies like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and many others.  If you need help choosing an anonymous VPN service, a good place to start is a review site, where you can find out more about the strengths, weaknesses, and costs of some of the top VPN providers around.

Similarities and Differences

Both proxy and VPN services fulfill similar functions and have pros and cons.  Proxies are great when you just need anonymous browsing, at decent speeds, and extreme privacy, encryption, protection from your ISP or government, etc. aren’t an issue.  Because of the VPN encryption process, connection speeds tend to slow, as there is a lot of processing and overhead added to the traffic.  This is the tradeoff for a more secure service, that keeps you safe from prying government or ISP monitors, offers additional protective features so you’re IP address can’t leak out even in the case of dropped connections, keep no logs or records of true IP addresses after a session is closed, and so forth.

Key similarities and differences between these two types of security systems include:

  • Speed – proxies are fast, because there is no encryption overhead, whereas VPNs can take a speed hit, ranging from 15% max download speed reduction to upwards of 90%.
  • Protocols – the vast majority of anonymous proxies are only designed to cover web browsing traffic, whereas VPNs cover ALL network traffic.
  • Security – the encryption used in VPNs adds an ultra-secure layer to your traffic, protecting you from having your information monitored or stolen in-transit, and further hiding you from local network discovery for hacking. Proxies do no such thing.
  • Geo-restrictions – both proxy and VPN services can be used to bypass geographic restrictions on content, by connecting to a server in a country other than your own.
  • Cost – proxy servers are usually free or very low cost, as there’s not much processing power or overhead involved in their services – just re-routing web traffic, essentially. VPNs are almost always paid subscription services (at least if you want unlimited bandwidth and high speeds), costing $5-15/month in most cases.  The server infrastructure and processing load is very high, and so must be offset with the subscription price.  But, you also get what you pay for, with far more robust security features on VPNs.
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