What is a proxy server?
When you generally browse the web, your computer connects to a webserver to fetch content and downloads it for you to read. This process is direct and straightforward.
When you use a proxy server — you do not directly connect to a website's server, instead, you request the data from the proxy server you connected to, which then connects to the website's server, collects the data, and passes it back to you.
In-depth understanding of how a proxy server functions
Every computer connected to the Internet is required to have an IP address assigned to itself that works as its identification. Think of this as your phone number. Just as your friends know what number to call so they can reach you, the internet knows how to send the correct data to the correct computer by the IP address.
A proxy server is a computer on the internet with its IP address that your computer knows. When you send a web request, your request goes to the proxy server first. The proxy server then makes your web request on your behalf, collects the response from the webserver, and forwards you the web page data so you can see the page in your browser.
When the proxy server forwards your web requests, it can make changes to the data you send and still get you the information that you expect to see. A proxy server can change your IP address, so the webserver doesn’t know exactly where you are in the world. It can encrypt your data, so your data is unreadable in transit. And lastly, a proxy server can block access to certain web pages, based on IP address.
Why do people use proxy servers?
Proxy servers are still widely in use by individuals and organizations. Some of these uses are:
Control and monitor Internet usage
Most organizations and parents use a proxy to limit what websites their employees or kids can view. They can also monitor and log all web requests, so even though they might not block the site, they know how much time you spend cyberloafing.
Saving bandwidth and increasing speed
Organizations often use this technique to attain better network performance by caching certain static assets.
Example: When you ask for https://akshit.me, the server checks for a recently saved copy and if it has one, it sends that copy over instead of fetching it from the Internet.
Get access to blocked resources
Proxy servers make it easy to circumvent content censorship. Is there a show on Netflix available only in the UK? Connect to a proxy in the UK, Netflix will believe you are in the UK and grant you access to view that show.
Individuals and organizations alike use proxy servers to browse the internet more privately. Some proxy servers will change the IP address and other identifying information the web request contains. This means the destination server doesn’t know who made the original request, which helps keeps your personal information and browsing habits more private.
Risks associated with proxy servers
Now, that you know the benefits of using a proxy server, take a look at the risks of using one:
Free proxy servers
You must have heard the popular adage “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” This applies to the free proxy server model too, using one can be quite risky, even the services that have an ad-based revenue. If you have found a completely free proxy server, be aware the owner has invested little to no money in the encryption or backend hardware, if you use it, you find major performance issues and security loopholes.
Browsing history log
Most of the time, a proxy server saves your original IP address and web request information, possibly unencrypted and locally. Make sure to check if your proxy server logs and saves that data — and what kind of retention or law enforcement cooperation policies they follow. If you expect to use a proxy server for privacy, but the vendor is just logging and selling your data you might not be receiving the expected value for the service.
If you use a proxy server without encryption, you might as well not use a proxy server. No encryption means you are sending your requests as plain text. Anyone who is listening will be able to pull usernames and passwords and account information easily. Make sure whatever proxy server you use provides full encryption capability.
Types of proxy servers
Not all proxy servers function in the same way or use the same protocols. It is important to understand the features of a proxy server and find one that best caters to your needs.
A transparent proxy tells websites that it is a proxy server and it passes along your IP address in a header, identifying you to the web server. Schools often use transparent proxies for content filtering.
It functions similarly to a transparent proxy but with a slight change. Although it tells the website it is a proxy but does not reveal your IP address thus keeping your identity to the website anonymous.
High Anonymity proxy
A HA Proxy, or as I like to call it, a proxy on meth. periodically change the IP address they present to the web server, making it very difficult to keep track of what traffic belongs to who. High anonymity proxies, like the TOR Network, is the most private and secure way to read the internet.
Since people around the world use proxy servers without knowing what they are or how they work, I wrote this little piece to briefly explain proxy servers. If you liked it, please consider sharing it. Until next time.