Proxies vs VPNs vs Tor – Understanding the Difference
There are many reasons to use online privacy and anonymity tools when browsing the web, downloading or streaming content. From, as they say, covering one’s back side when using Torrent software, to gaining access to Netflix from a foreign country while traveling.
Selecting the right solution (or solutions) for your needs can be tricky, especially if you’re not an online privacy and encryption expert.
Should you be using a VPN? Perhaps it’s more cost-effective to use some type of proxy server, especially since many are available for free? If so, which type of proxy should you be using? Or perhaps, your needs cannot be served by VPNs or proxies, and you should be sharing your connection with other users on Tor? To make the right decision, it’s important to understand the basic technical differences between the services.
What are Proxy Servers?
Proxy servers, or in this case “open proxy servers”, can be described as simple virtual “pipes” for your Internet traffic on its way to the target server. To said server (and the routers along the way), the traffic will appear as traffic coming from the proxy server address, while your IP and activity are logged (or not) on the proxy server itself.
There are two main types of open proxy servers applicable to privacy and online anonymity: HTTP and SOCKS proxy servers.
HTTP Proxy Servers
The simplest and most basic type of proxy server is the web proxy. All it can do is redirect web traffic (HTTP and HTTPS) from the client (your browser) to the host (the server hosting the website you want to access), effectively concealing your IP as the source of the web traffic.
- Since these servers only handle HTTP requests, they tend to be faster than free VPN services or SOCKS proxy servers
- The multitude of free proxy services available make open free proxy servers a particularly cost-effective choice for simple anonymous web browsing purposes
- None of the traffic is encrypted
- Limited to web traffic only
- Free web proxies can pose a major security threat
When should I use a Web Proxy Server?
If a specific website is blocked in your country or unavailable (for technical reasons) through your Internet Service Provider, a web proxy server can be helpful in gaining temporary (albeit slow and insecure) access to said website.
SOCKS Proxy Servers
Slightly more advanced and a lot rarer than your basic web proxy, these servers expand their capabilities to services other than web browsing.
- Support for non-HTTP traffic like SMTP, FTP and Torrent traffic
- Suffer from the same security issues as web proxy servers
- Slower than HTTP (web) proxy servers
When should I use a SOCKS Proxy Server?
Since traffic is unencrypted, we would not advise accessing your email through a free SOCKS proxy. You can, however, use it to access FTP servers unreachable from your IP address or play turn-based or single player games on international servers. Real-time gaming is pretty much impossible due to latency created by the extra “pipe” in your traffic’s journey through the global Internet.
What are VPNs?
VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are not just simple “pipes”, but encrypted tunnels with sophisticated privacy and security capabilities that do much more than just conceal your IP address. With a VPN client on your device connected to a VPN server, all of your traffic is encrypted at a varying degree of complexity and security.
- Fully encrypted connection security and privacy
- Flexible and reliable
- A paid account is necessary for full functionality and reliability
- Free service can be slow
When should I use a VPN Service?
If you’re looking for reliable online anonymity and security, a VPN is your best choice. This reliability comes at a cost, but it’s often preferable to pay in money than in other unpleasant ways.
What is Tor?
Tor, short for The Onion Router, is an excellent and popular tool for anonymous browsing and downloading, with or without a VPN. It works by creating a fully encrypted mesh network of users who essentially share their bandwidth and IP address with one another and contribute local computational power to keep the network encrypted all across.
You can use the Tor protocol to encrypt and anonymize all traffic by installing a local Tor client, or just web browsing with a Tor browser software.
- Multi-layered encryption
- Access to unlisted “Deep Web” sites
- Free to use
- Extremely slow due to all the encryption layers, so not useful for Torrent, Kodi or audio streaming
- Use of Tor can get you red-flagged by government organizations even if you’re not doing anything illegal
When should I use Tor?
For added security (at near-dial-up speeds), Tor can be used in conjunction with a VPN to offer another layer of privacy and anonymity needed for sensitive content consumption or publishing.
Tor is often used by journalists, activists, human rights workers, and whistleblowers, especially those who live or work in countries with internet restrictions.
The right online privacy and security solution for you depends greatly on the task at hand: content streaming, gaming, anonymous web access or something else entirely.
Proxies offer a limited solution, and free ones can put your privacy in danger. Tor is a flexible free solution, but not without its own unique shortcomings.
It is safe to say that VPN servers are superior to proxies. Not only are they highly reliable and secure, but because they are the best at what they do. Since your online anonymity is greatly enhanced, it is an even better way to bypass ISP throttling and government blocking of specific sites on content.
The only reason why anyone would ever choose a proxy over a VPN server (for anything beyond simple web browsing tasks) is an unwillingness or inability to pay for a high-quality VPN service. It’s worth considering that VPN services are not as expensive as they may seem and can cost for as low as $10 per month.