What is a Proxy Server?
What is a proxy server? and does it keep you safe?
At a very basic level, the internet works by a transfer of data. Information is exchanged between senders and receivers. To enable one computer to identify another computer that it needs to exchange information with, each computer has an Internet Protocol or IP address; a series of numbers that is specific to that computer.
A proxy server can also be called an “application-level gateway”, and hides the Internet Protocol address of the computers in its network. In other words, a proxy server acts as a gateway between a local network and the Internet as a whole. On a very basic level, it does this by intercepting connections between sender and receiver. Incoming data enters through one port and is forwarded to the rest of the network via another port allowing computers connecting to the internet via a proxy server to make an indirect connection.
For example, Jill is an employee who works for a company. She would like to access a web page URL using her work network, which is connected to the internet using a proxy server. Jill enters the web page URL that she would like to access. The request is sent from her computer, to the proxy, which then forwards the request onto the requested URL. The requested information is returned to the proxy server, which then forwards it back to Jill on her work computer. In this way Jill is connected to the internet, but indirectly via the proxy server.
So why use an indirect connection via a proxy server?
Most company and school networks have proxy servers, which in most cases monitor use of the internet and block some areas of it. These are content filtering proxy servers that allow the administrator control over what information is sent and received by computers connected to the network. This ensures adherence to an internet acceptable use policy which students and employees will need to abide by in order to access the school or company network. Content filtering proxy servers can be either free or paid for, and contain lists of IP addresses in categories. Whole categories can be banned, such as social networking, gambling, pornography or individual websites can specifically be banned such as Facebook.
There may be an additional layer to a content filtering proxy. When a computer on a network is permitted by the proxy to access a web page URL and the requested information is returned, the content filtering proxy server may also filter the information at this stage. For example, expletives or other unwanted language may be blocked. Image files which contain certain flesh colours may also be blocked, in order to filter out pornographic images.
Proxy servers, conversely, can be used to bypass content filters. Perhaps the most common example is the use of geolocation proxy servers, which are the most common way of bypassing government censorship filters.
A caching proxy server can be used to improve the performance of computers on the network by saving previous requests made by the computer, or other computers on the
network, which reduces the need for the network as a whole to receive information from the internet.
Anonymity on the internet by hiding your IP address.
Whenever you use the internet, your data can be viewed and recorded by many different organisations. Simply visiting a website can cause information to be sent including details about the device used to access the internet and its physical location, and therefore the physical location of the device’s user. Cookies can be transferred that can track the use of the internet, including which websites are visited. Plug in software on your internet browser is notorious for passing on more information about users than is necessary.
There can be many reasons for not wanting information such as this to be provided and so for hiding your IP address. Wanting to be anonymous on the web does not necessarily mean that there is something illegal going on. There can be completely legitimate reasons for wanting to be anonymous.
The way to get around this is to use a proxy server. There many different types to choose from and they all offer different. So what are the options when wishing to browse the internet anonymously?
The most simple way to browse the internet anonymously is by using a web proxy. Web proxy sites are simply sites which are accessed as normal and you can use these sites to enter the URL of the website you want to visit anonymously via the web proxy site. The simplicity and ease of use of these sites comes with a downside; they speeds of accessing the internet through these sites can be very slow. The free sites are usually paid for by advertising services, which can be irritating. To counteract this, some offer a paid service which can increase the speed of browsing via the web proxy and remove adverts.
There are so many web proxy sites on the internet that it can be hard to tell which one to use. Some may be run by criminals who wish to steal the personal details that you enter whilst using the web proxy. Therefore, web proxy sites may not be safe in some scenarios such as online banking or purchasing products online and it is recommended to use a reputable and well known web proxy site. Lists of reputable web proxy sites can be found on the internet. Another option is to use two separate browsers, one which is used via a proxy and one which is not.
Manual proxy server
These work in a similar way to web proxy sites but they don’t have the web interface. Instead they work by the user manually configuring their browser to connect to the proxy servers URL address. Lists of proxy server addresses can be found on the internet. As with web proxy sites above, sensitive data should not be provided as criminals may be operating the proxy servers hoping to steal sensitive information.
It is relatively straightforward to change a proxy server manually. Once in the options menu of your browser, there will be an option to change LAN settings and enter the IP Address of
the Proxy Server and the Port Number. Some browsers also offer a proxy check tool to ensure that the settings worked.
Virtual Private Networks or VPNs.
Virtual Private Networks are not technically proxy servers. A Virtual Private Network is usually software that is downloaded onto the user’s computer and effectively adds the user’s computer onto a private network, without it being physically present in that network. Virtual Private Networks are used in business when employees are working away from the office and wish to log into the office private network
Virtual Private Networks are also good for those wishing to browse the internet anonymously. First the user wanting to stay anonymous connects to the internet via any connection. Next, the user runs downloaded and subscribed to Virtual Private Network software. Connection is made to the Virtual Private Network. Once the connection has been established, the user can access the internet as if physically present on a private network. The user therefore appears to be in the location of the Virtual Private Network.
For users that wish to keep their identity anonymous, Virtual Private Networks are a good choice for those who are happy to pay for products. There are a large range of products available and premium services have dedicated servers for faster speeds.
These methods of hiding your IP address have different levels of anonymity. However, no matter what level of security you require, they all provide peace of mind that your information is secure and you are not being tracked on the internet.