That’s the general definition of a proxy server, which is also known as a forward proxy server. In the same way that a “proxy” is a representative, a proxy server represents you by acting as a messenger or gateway to the web.
Although there are many types of proxy servers, each with varying functions, they all serve the fundamental task of representing you as you navigate the internet.
What does a proxy server do?
By forwarding along your web requests, proxy servers offer many security benefits. When you send a web request, the request first goes to the proxy server. The proxy server sends your request on to the relevant web server, gets a response, and forwards that back so that the data you requested (a web page, say) can load in your browser.
By acting as a representative or gateway between you and the internet, a proxy server ensures that your browser is never in direct contact with the sites you visit, which can help strengthen your security and the security of your local network. But a proxy server can have other uses, and it can offer more than just security protection against hackers.
Here are some other useful features of proxy servers:
Firewall & web filter abilities: you can restrict access to certain websites.
Shared network connections: you can connect multiple devices under one network.
Data caching: you can increase browsing speeds by saving copies of websites.
How does a proxy server work?
All proxy servers work with your computer’s IP address. An IP (Internet Protocol) address functions like a home address for your computer or device. Just as mail is delivered to the physical address of your home, your internet requests are returned to your unique IP address, ensuring that data gets transmitted to the right location.
When you’re online without a proxy, your IP address is exposed for web servers to see. In fact, it’s incredibly easy to find your IP address, which can potentially lead to security breaches and other identity-related issues. An online proxy has an IP address, too, which can be used on your behalf so that you don’t have to reveal your actual IP address.
When you use a proxy server, your internet requests are sent to the proxy server, which relays your requests out to the internet. The web or other server you’re requesting data from then returns your requests to the proxy address, which returns the data back to you. With a proxy server, the only point of contact for your network is the proxy server itself.
A proxy server acts as a gateway between you and the internet.
A web-based proxy server can mask your IP address, making it difficult for a web server to track your physical location. But hiding your IP address does not encrypt your internet traffic, meaning that your data requests — including your usernames, passwords, and other account info — aren’t protected or hidden.
Despite their security limitations, there are several kinds of proxies that work in different ways. We’ll cover them later on.
Set up and installation
Whether you use a Windows PC or a Mac, your computer has settings to help you set up and connect to a proxy server. Within the proxy settings, it’s common for your operating system to automatically detect a list of available proxy servers. But it’s also possible to enter a proxy’s unique IP address and port number. This information should be given to you by your provider if you’re using a private or business proxy server.
How about reverse proxies?
We covered how proxy servers act on your behalf by serving as gateways between you and the web servers you communicate with. The process can also go in the other direction. Reverse proxies represent a web server or group of servers. Reverse proxies connect to you on behalf of those web servers.
Why would a web server need a reverse proxy? As with a forward proxy, reverse proxies are helpful for cybersecurity, efficient networking, and data caching — all for the benefit of the web server.
Types of proxy servers
There are a variety of proxy servers available. Although they all function to represent you online, different proxy servers perform this task in different ways to meet your specific needs.
There’s no secret-agent trickery with a transparent proxy. It tells the web server that it’s a proxy, and it passes along your actual IP address, effectively identifying you to the web server. A transparent proxy is not used for security or privacy purposes.
Generally, transparent proxies are used by schools, businesses, and public networks like libraries for the purposes of content filtering or data caching.
Distorting proxies are your “fake beard and glasses” kind of proxy. A distorting proxy gives a false IP address to the web server — though it still identifies itself as a proxy. The false address provides anonymity, but the true benefit is that you can trick the web server into thinking you’re in a different location. In other words, distorting proxies can help you get around geo-based content restrictions.
Although they add a layer of security, the downside of distorting proxies is that some sites deny requests from an online proxy — so you won’t be able to visit these sites even with a distorting proxy.
An anonymous proxy can keep a secret — it will keep your IP address hidden from the websites you visit. This can help combat identity theft as well as allow for anonymous browsing. But there’s a catch: Anonymous proxies still reveal themselves as proxy servers, and some websites may not give you access.
Nevertheless, anonymous proxies are a good, basic line of defense for your IP address.
High anonymity proxies
If cybersecurity is a concern, high anonymity proxies are the best proxy solution. A high anonymity proxy is a shapeshifter. Although it will use your IP address, this kind of proxy will periodically change the IP address that it reveals to the web servers of the sites you visit. That makes it more difficult for websites to use online tracking techniques to snoop on your browsing.
On top of that, a high anonymity proxy does not reveal itself to be a proxy working on your behalf. This ensures that your digital tracks are covered, making it the most secure type of proxy server available.
But despite offering some degree of security, most proxy servers won’t encrypt your web traffic, leaving you vulnerable to online threats like hackers or snoops. A VPN (virtual private network) offers much more protection.
AVG Secure VPN will not only mask your IP address so that you can navigate the web freely. With advanced, military-grade encryption, AVG Secure VPN will also secure all your internet traffic to make sure you stay protected, regardless of what you get into online.
Why use a proxy server?
With ever-sophisticated methods for hackers to steal data and even entire identities, the security benefits of proxy servers are obvious. But what else is a proxy server used for besides cybersecurity?
Content Control: Maybe you’re a business owner who wants to limit internet usage in the office. Or maybe you’re a parent looking to restrict streaming access for your kids. A proxy server is an effective tool for blocking certain content on your WiFi network.
Privacy: Individuals and businesses alike can benefit from the privacy proxy servers afford. They make it difficult for web servers to track requests back to their origin (you and your network). This ensures that your browsing habits and personal information are more secure, and that you enjoy a safer browsing experience.
Caching: Want to improve your browsing performance? If you or your organization frequently use certain websites, a proxy can save a copy of these sites onto its server — this is called caching. Once saved, your browser can directly access the website from your local server rather than having to go all the way back to the web server itself. This improves browsing speed and performance.
Access Blocked Resources: There are a number of ways to unblock websites and a proxy is one of them. By concealing your actual location, certain proxy servers can help you bypass content restrictions set up by companies or governments.
Who uses proxy servers?
Considering the variety of options, there’s a proxy server out there for everyone. Generally, proxies are used by businesses, organizations, and other public networks. Proxy servers are often used by schools or public libraries aiming to prevent access to certain sites. Offices or other workplaces use proxies to streamline performance by caching frequently visited websites.
A sports fan can use an online proxy to root for their home team when they’re traveling abroad. And citizens of repressive countries who want access to a free internet can bypass government censors and other content restrictions with the help of a proxy server.
Proxy servers are great tools that offer control, privacy, efficiency, and access to otherwise blocked content.
Using a proxy server: the risks
Although generally beneficial, there are certain downsides to proxy servers.
Potentially Unstable: Many web proxies are free, meaning that at any time you can expect that a lot of people are using these servers simultaneously. As a result, some proxy servers have unstable connections and frequently drop out. But if you want to use one, we recommend going with HMA’s free web proxy.
Slow Speeds: Does your internet connection seem slow? A proxy could be the culprit. As just mentioned, many users at once can slow down a proxy server. Also, because proxies channel your traffic through a middleman, rather than going directly to web servers on the internet, this extra step may cause bottlenecks — especially if your proxy is working to conceal your identity or is located in a different part of the world.
Security Issues: Most proxy servers can’t encrypt the contents of your web traffic, which sharply undermines the cybersecurity benefits of a proxy. Without encryption, your requests are sent simply as plain text, and valuable data — usernames, passwords, account information, etc. — can easily be exposed or stolen.
Clearly, there are many performance and security-related risks with proxy servers. That’s why we recommend using a VPN, like AVG Secure VPN, which is a great alternative that resolves many of the security issues associated with proxy servers.
What are the alternatives?
If cybersecurity is important to you, the risk of using a proxy server may be greater than the reward. When comparing a proxy to a VPN, you’ll see significant benefits to using a VPN instead.
Proxy servers and VPNs use remote servers to connect you to the internet. Both can protect your IP address, and both proxies and VPNs can conceal your location. The main difference is that a VPN will fully encrypt your internet traffic and data.
With a VPN like AVG Secure VPN, you can be sure that your valuable information and online privacy will remain secure from prying eyes in a way that a proxy server simply cannot guarantee.
Use a trusted VPN for true privacy and anonymity online
With e-commerce, social media, online banking, and all the other online services out there, your identity and personal data are at risk of exposure on multiple fronts. Threats to steal or sell this information are increasingly prevalent, making enhanced cybersecurity more crucial now than ever.
While proxy servers can provide a good first line of defense, to compete with the variety of threats out there, a VPN is your best option.
AVG Secure VPN offers all the benefits of a proxy server along with military-grade encryption, ensuring that your data and privacy remain fully protected. And with servers all over the world, you’ll enjoy world-class protection wherever you are — and blazing-fast connection speeds.