Proxies have been around for a long, long time. We use them for a variety of purposes, sometimes without even realizing it. One of the most common reasons people connect to a proxy for is the change of IP address. Other uses might include emulated servers or even attempts at anonymity.
Conveniently enough, many proxies are free. Less convenient is the fact that they suffer from a chronic lack of security due to insufficient or totally absent encryption. Bandwidth can also be a major problem; having used quite a few proxies, I can honestly say that their being free is a major reason why most run so slowly.
So is there a better option? It turns out that there is a sort of “next level” service that accomplishes everything a proxy can and considerably more. In the same way that upgrading your phone from one version to the next can provide superior features, using this other service can make a big difference.
The service in question is known as a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
So Exactly What is a VPN?
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) aren’t so different than proxies—they are remote servers that reroute internet traffic for users connected to them. Like proxies, they provide a new IP address and assumed physical location for their users.
Yet the similarities stop there. Proxies are simple in nature. Most of them are free and anyone can connect to them, often without even using a password or any sort of login information. They are, by their very nature, highly unsafe.
VPNs are usually part of a paid service. Users subscribe for a monthly, quarterly or yearly fee and get access to a host of different servers located across the globe. Connecting is done via a secure, encrypted line directly to the VPN. After this, all traffic is routed through the VPN where it is also encrypted and funneled back to the user’s devices.
Further, because VPNs are a paid service, they maintain significantly higher bandwidth values and so end up giving their users much greater speeds—in some cases imperceptibly different from the user’s normal internet speed—and don’t typically run into the issue of having too many people connected at once.
While the speed advantage doesn’t require much explanation, what about the encryption? You might be asking why that even matters. Yet encryption is exactly what makes a VPN such a valuable tool.
The Value of Encryption
Everything you do online is subject to some degree of tracking. When a website is queried by you, it asks who is making the query and where they are. In most cases, these sites also keep logs of who asked for what.
Because of the amount of tracking going on, it’s understandable that some of us feel a little bit overexposed. But when you’re using the internet from an encrypted connection—as with a VPN—tracking becomes a non-issue.
There are two reasons for this:
- VPN users connected to the same server share the same IP address
- Data sent and received is encrypted; it can’t be read by anyone but you
The first point is really no different than “blending in with the crowd.” Whereas your home IP address is fairly static and easily tied to you, the VPN’s IP address is more difficult to pin down because queries can come from just about anyone on the server. Websites and trackers have no way to determine “who” is making the query, just the IP address.
With multiple servers to choose from, VPN users can further keep themselves anonymous by using different connections to accomplish the same tasks. This can be used to help avoid establishing a pattern, at least if you’re really overly concerned with being tracked.
The second point regarding encryption is the key reason to use a VPN. When you send information to the internet and it sends information back, some of that data is subject to interception, particularly when you involve an unsecured network such as one on public WiFi.
Hackers can grab that data and even insert malicious code into it. Encrypted data is different—without the right decryption codes, no one can realistically access it. Breaking encryption is so difficult that the 256-bit encryption used by most VPNs has never actually been cracked. The amount of time and processing power it would take to break the code is simply unrealistic.
Considering how much better VPNs are than proxies, the real question becomes how to choose a good one.
Picking a Good VPN
Photo credit: buffered.com
Choosing a VPN can be difficult. There are many different providers with difference prices, speeds, server locations, and device supports. If you want a shortcut, Secure Thoughts has a review on the best VPNs currently available. In general, however, there are a few things to look for in a good VPN:
- Unlimited bandwidth
- Device support and simultaneous connection support
- Customer service contacts
- Server locations
- Money back guarantees
Unlimited bandwidth is available in most modern VPNs; in the past, it was a major issue because you could use up all of your bandwidth and be stuck without your VPN. As we gain more devices, support for a variety of formats such as iOS, Android, Windows and even Linux is an important aspect to consider.
No service is perfect, so looking at what kind of customer support your VPN has to offer is equally valuable. Some only offer email support, while others have chat and phone support. Just be sure their support hours match a time you can actually contact them, as not all VPN providers are in the same time zone.
Prices vary for service, but the typical range is from $5-$15 per month; it usually depends on how long you’re subscribed. Server locations may also be important as certain services are restricted based on geographic location, and if your provider doesn’t have a server where you need to access from, you’ll be out of luck.
The last thing to consider is the guarantee. If you sign up for a service and it turns out not to be any good, it’s good to know you can get your money back. Some services will guarantee their product for just a few days, while others offer up to a full month.
The Advantages Are Clear
While there’s no doubt proxies have a place in the world, it’s certainly true that their features are inferior to those of a VPN. As a free choice and as something easy to setup, I wouldn’t expect to see proxies go anywhere.
But if security, function, and anonymity are your goals, a VPN is clearly the better choice. So will you be using a VPN? Tell us what you think in the comments section.
About the Author: Diamond is an avid internet user and online securities blogger. As an everyday user of VPNs, she encourages users to consider the benefits as they assemble security for their devices in the age of hacking and malware.