What is a Proxy Server

Thomas Gilham

Normally, when you connect to the internet via an Internet Service Provider (ISP), the ISP will assign your computer an IP address. This serves a form of identification because the IP address will contain information about your ISP and thus help identify both your computer (or tablet, smartphone, etc) as well as your location which every website or internet resource that you visit/connect to can read and record.

A proxy server, on the other hand, serves as a “middleman” between your computer and the websites/online resources that you’re visiting. Instead of connecting directly and thus revealing your IP address (as assigned by the ISP), you’ll connect to the proxy server first which will subsequently connect to the website/online resource. Since it’s the proxy server that is connecting to the website, the website will get the information about your IP address from the proxy service instead of from you.

The word “proxy” means “substitute” because you’re not actually changing your IP address. In fact, the proxy server itself will always see your IP address. But since it’s the proxy server that is connecting to websites, and the proxy server has its own IP address(es) that it will use to identify your visit, the website will only gather information from the proxy server instead of from you and your device(s).

Note: A browser’s “incognito”/”private” mode is unrelated to proxy servers. Your real IP address will still be transmitted when you visit a website using your browser’s incognito/private mode.

There are many legitimate reasons to use proxy servers. For instance, many websites use something called “geo-blocking” to filter visitors by their country of origin. If you’re an American, but you’re overseas and thus given an IP address that’s outside the United States, some American websites may block you from visiting because they think you’re foreign. Therefore, using a proxy server with an American IP address will allow you to access the geo-blocked website.

Other uses for proxy servers include avoiding onerous government surveillance, getting around a network block (such as at a school, job, or library) of certain websites, and making your search engine queries and/or browsing activity (more) private.

Some proxy servers are available to use for free. You can find these by going to your preferred search engine and typing “free proxies” or “free proxy servers.” But because these free services are sometimes used by malefactors, some websites will block access to anyone using those proxy server’s IP addresses.

Note: The web browser Opera comes built-in with a limited range of free proxy servers which it calls “VPN.” Simply click on the blue “VPN” button in the toolbar to activate/deactivate using one of the Opera proxy servers.

Companies also offer proxy server access for a fee. If you have a frequent need to mask or alter your IP address, you can pay to become a user of these company’s proxy servers. Paid proxy server services usually have a wider range of IPs to choose from, including which country you want to appear to be logging in from.

All computers and devices (such as smartphones, tablets, etc.) which connect to the internet will have an IP address as this is the main form of identification used across the internet. In some cases, the IP address will contain very detailed information not just about your device but also your location: your country, your city, and sometimes even on what street you live.

By using a proxy server, you’ll be hiding your real IP address from the websites that you visit. Keep in mind, however, that your ISP (or office/school network administrator) will always know what you’re doing on the internet even if you are using a proxy server. Furthermore, your browser (especially if it’s Google’s Chrome browser) will also track the websites you visit regardless of whether or not you’re using a proxy server.

Whether a paid or free proxy server, it’s important to understand that there are some key distinctions about how they disclose and present IP addresses. For instance, some proxy servers tell all of the websites that you visit that you’re coming in from a proxy server. In some cases, the proxy server will also tell the website your original IP address. This is known as a “transparent proxy.”

Other proxy servers will tell the websites that you visit that you’re coming from a proxy server, but they won’t tell the website your original IP address. This is known as an “anonymous” proxy. In yet other cases, some proxy servers will identify your visit as coming from a proxy server, but they’ll make up an invented (and therefore false) IP address to the website. This is called a “distorting” proxy.

Last, but definitely not least, a “high anonymity” proxy will neither inform the websites that you are visiting that it is a proxy server nor will they tell the website your real IP address. Instead, the proxy server will just generate a fake IP address. Because this is the most desirable use of a proxy server, you’ll most likely have to pay a company to provide “high anonymity” proxy services.

Note: Proxy servers only work when connecting to a URL (usually a website). They are not set up to disguise/hide your IP address when performing other functions like receiving/sending an email or sending/receiving FTP files unless you’re doing these actions via a website.

Keep in mind that “free” proxy services may not be entirely free. While they won’t charge you money, they may be collecting information about you, including your real IP address, the websites that you visit, and your activity on those websites.

The way that most ISPs work is that a customer (i.e. you) pays for internet access. As such, your ISP account is tied to your name and other identifying information. Therefore, a combination of your IP address (which contains information about your ISP) and your web activity can allow websites to track not just your actions but identify you by name, address, and other key data. Using a proxy server, when done correctly, is a reliable way to prevent websites from recording and understanding what you are doing on their website as well as connecting it to who you, the person (not the computer), are.

Furthermore, even high-quality professional proxy servers usually transmit information in an unencrypted fashion. This means that when you log into a proxy server and then want to visit a website, the proxy server will be sending data requests to the website that aren’t encrypted. Malefactors can set up methods of recording the information that is being sent, including things like your username, password, and bank card details. This information can then be recorded, sold, or used for other malicious purposes.

Even worse, some proxy servers themselves are set up by malefactors as a kind of information trap, including some so-called “free” proxy servers. Not only do these proxy servers harvest all of the information that you’re sending, but they may also infiltrate your computer in order to install viruses or other harmful software.

If the website that you are visiting requires you to input sensitive information, especially if it is financial in nature, you’ll need to make sure that all the exchange of information is encrypted. Furthermore, make sure that you’re logging onto a URL that begins with “HTTPS” instead of “HTTP”. If you’re not absolutely, 100 per cent sure that you can trust your proxy server, you should only log onto that particular website without going through a proxy server.

For maximum security and anonymity for your online activity, the best way to browse the internet is either via a VPN (Virtual Private Network) or by using anonymizing software like the Tor network which is a kind of multilayered proxy server.