How to Use a Proxy to Browse the Web Anonymously
Whether the time is spent skimming Reddit, searching for a new pair of shows, or watching cat videos, chances are the average American spends a significant portion of their time on the Internet. The web has replaced – or at least provided some solid competition for – essentially every form of media available. It is the driver of a world gone “paperless,” shopping without leaving the home, and TV without commercials.
With day-to-day usage so high, it is easy to overlook an important question: is it safe?
These days, people think nothing of making purchases online, paying their bills, and filling out forms with their personal information. A click of a button and there go credit cards numbers, bank account credentials, and social security numbers.
What if it ends up in the wrong place?
These and many other issues related to Internet usage can be solved by using a proxy. Knowing what proxy services are, how they work, and when to use them will add a layer of security to the browsing experience.
What is a proxy?
Anyone with a computer has probably heard of at least one type of proxy – they just may not realize it. That type is called a firewall and it is the classic example of what a basic proxy should be: a virtual barrier between a computer and any potentially malicious players on the web.
There was a time when that was enough, but with the amount of information being shared on the web, there is reason to take greater precautions.
A hypothetical computer-user turns on their computer to use the Internet. Let’s call them Sam.
Sam wants to buy the latest and greatest boy band CD, but is really embarrassed (because Sam is too cool to be buying CDs made by teenage boys.) On top of being embarrassed, Sam is a little paranoid that someone will know about the CD – maybe Sam’s nemesis Pam is tracking her IP address.
When Sam connects to the Internet, her computer makes a connection to whatever site she decides to visit. Since Pam is a savvy nemesis, she knows how to track these connections.
So when Sam clicks to buy that boy band CD, Pam will know – and then everyone will find out Sam’s secret!
That is, unless Sam uses a proxy.
The proxy server will serve as the connection between Sam’s computer and the Internet. This way, when Pam looks to see what Sam is doing, there will not be any visible lines of communication between Sam’s computer and the Internet. Sam can buy that boy band CD in peace.
How do proxies work?
The best way to conceptualize what I proxy service is is by understanding how different types of proxy work.
Normally, when someone accesses the internet from their computer that access is seen as a direct connection – one that can be traced right back to the IP address of that person’s computer. Someone like Sam who does not want their traffic to be visible might not be comfortable wit this connection.
Proxies are often described as gateways that redirect Internet traffic, but they are more complicated than that.
Imagine a search request being sent from a computer as a little white envelope. With a normal connection, the path of that request could be traced straight from one address, across the Internet, to another address. Now, the computer communicates with the proxy, and the proxy relays the request across the web. Now it appears to be sent from the gateway – not a computer – and it is mixed in with the messages sent by the hundreds or thousands of other people using that proxy. The email is now shuffled in between all the little white envelopes being sent, with no clear way of tracing it back to the original computer. Only the proxy server itself can sort out which traffic is coming from which IP address, and the communication is essentially anonymous.
This describes the aptly named anonymizing proxy, but there are numerous types that each work a little differently.
An example of a very different kind of proxy might be a reverse proxy. These provide essentially the same service, but for the servers rather than the individuals accessing them. This way the individuals cannot see which servers they are accessing – this allows a single access point for numerous servers, and the people accessing those servers cannot tell the difference.
Yet another proxy works by storing commonly accessed pages. A proxy of this type is called a caching proxy, and it can deliver recently accessed pages directly –without needed to access the source first.
Proxies can also be used to monitor and restrict internet access within a network. This feature is often used by businesses to ensure that their employees are only accessing appropriate, work-related cites through the company servers.
Here’s a well-put-together video that illustrates all this very well:
Why use a proxy?
Firewalls are fairly ubiquitous, but there are many reasons to start using more complex proxies.
As in the example given, anonymizing proxies are useful for people who want to protect or conceal their identity on the web. While that was more of an imaginary situation, there are ways that this feature can be very useful. There is the obvious, concealing the user’s identity to keep their information anonymous, but that had some added perks. In the past, anonymous proxies have been used to circumvent geographic restrictions on access to certain websites. Some servers – like Hulu – have been trying to crack down on users trying to access their content this way.
Caching proxies can be useful because they make accessing cached sites a lot faster. Rather than needed to search the web, the proxy can deliver content directly to the user – the “middle man” is no longer in the middle, and everything moves a lot faster than traditional proxies.
Individuals are less likely to opt to use reverse proxies, they are more useful for busy servers looking to handle a large number of requests without jeopardizing the user-experience. Anyone who finds him or herself in charge of a high-traffic site may need to consider using a reverse proxy server, but for the average person it is more of a fun-fact. Reverse servers are out there and they too help speed up web exchanges.
The push for anonymity
There are obvious reasons for someone to want to conceal their identity or personal information while using the Internet, but recent history has also been crucial in driving the shift towards anonymous browsing. Wired reports that proxies and similar tools are the closest thing to complete anonymity – something that has become desirable to a greater number of people since revelations like Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing against NSA showed exactly how vulnerable information is on the web.
Rather than worry that personal their personal information is being collected and stored somewhere for use by some unknown entity, people are opting to conceal that information as well as they can.
Choosing a proxy (and avoiding potential pitfalls)
To answer the question on everyone’s mind – “which proxy server should I use? “ – it is first necessary to decide what features are most important to the user in mind. That will help narrow down the search by determining which type of proxy to look for. Then it becomes a matter of finding a good one.
An individual looking to start using a proxy server will probably find that an anonymous proxy or caching proxy best suits their needs.
The most important thing to remember when choosing a proxy is to make sure it is one that can be trusted. Remember, while proxies work to keep user information anonymous, they also have access to all of the information that is sent through them. In theory, this is not an issue because the proxy is working to help its clients. In reality, some proxies are set up by hackers to collect the information that the people using the proxy are trying to protect.
How can that happen? Proxies do not automatically encrypt the information that is passed through them, thus users who send personal information – usernames, passwords, or more sensitive information – are trusting that whoever is running the proxy allows that information to move freely through and on to wherever it needs to go. Someone with malicious intent could set up a “fake” proxy service to target that information.
This is what happened in 2012 when users of DNSCharger found themselves blocked from accessing the Internet. The block was initiated by the FBI when it was discovered that the so-called proxy service was actually malware designed to reroute users to fake advertisements.
To avoid these issues, avoid using proxies that no one seems to have heard of – a good way to be sure is to look up reviews before using any proxy.
Recommendations For Surfing Anonymously
When looking for an anonymous proxy, HideMyAss is bound to pop-up. The service was rated 3.5 out of 5 by PCMag. The service is simple to use, widely available, and fast. The major complaint: price. With numerous free options, $4.99/month seems like a lot to ask (and that price is only available to those who are willing to sign on to a 12 month commitment.)
Digitfreak raves about Hidester – a free service for those looking to browse anonymously. It is the ideal solution for someone who, for whatever reason, does not have access to their own computer or existing VPN credentials. That said, it may take a little extra effort to find a public IP address that works. Once that has been accomplished, the user is free to surf for free.
Another free option – FilterBypass – received a positive review from All Proxy Sites but lacks the flashiness of sites like Hidester. That said, many of the sites are set up similarly and the issue may be trying a few and seeing which interface fits best. The free options are fairly simpler, while a paid subscription can give users access to some added benefits.
For those wary of downloads, many of the free options provide an added benefit: they are largely web-based proxy services. That means users can enjoy the ability to browse anonymously without the hassle of downloading and installing a proxy. This is only great for quick searches on computers that do not already have a proxy installed.
Torguard is generally considered a good option, and offers users 24/7 support. High-end packages offer unlimited bandwidth and speeds. Overall, it is described as “the best” option for Torrent users.
The problem with choosing is undeniably that there are more options than anyone could have the time to sift through. When compiling their list, All Tech Buzz reached 100 different options for proxy services. The average person is probably not going to take the time to sift through the reviews of 110 different services before making their decision, and really there is no point. If the list is that long, the take-home point is that there are a lot of good options, and chances are many of them are essentially the same. Again: when choosing be sure to look up the reviews, find an interface that seems comfortable, and stay away from options without any reviews.
For those concerned with the security of their choice, it may be worth paying for a subscription to have a little peace of mind. Paid services are often considered safer because they do not have to resort to shady practices – like sending ads to their users or selling traffic – in order to pay their bills.
What about VPNs?
When looking for a proxy, chances are the acronym “VPN” is going to turn up. VPN stands for virtual private network and a VPN can work in essentially the same manner as a proxy service but with an additional layer of protection. That layer comes in the form of encryption. How to Geek explains that the word encryption has become rather intimidating because it has been appearing in the media in rather nefarious contexts. That having been said, encryption is just another way to anonymously surf the web.
Like the proxies that have been described, a VPN reroutes users web traffic through a central server, disguising the connection between the user and whatever content they are trying to access. Unlike a basic proxy, a VPN also encrypts information so that anyone looking cannot see what information is being passed without unencrypting that information first.
But what does encryption really mean? Basically it means taking the information and encoding it in a way that only someone with access to the encryption key code decipher. Something as simple as changing what a letter stands for (all your “b’s” to “q’s” and so on) could be considered a way of encrypting information, but the methods used by VPNs are far more complicated.
VPNs provide additional benefits. Many users will find VPNs useful if they need their computer to appear as though it is in a network when really it is someone – anywhere actually – else in the world. Many schools and universities advise their students or employees to use VPNs to access their networks when they cannot be physically within the network. To access features only to those available, say, on a college campus, one would only need to access the VPN and the servers they try to access will no longer be able to tell that their computer is not, in fact, where its IP address says it is.
VPN vs. Proxy — Which to Use?
The simple answer is that it is not that simple. According to WhatIsMyIP.com, a VPN is essentially a way of accessing a proxy – not an entirely separate idea or entity. In other words, while a VPN can provide the added security of encryption, that additional security may not be all that valuable if a user is not sharing information the requires that level of security.
Knowing whether a proxy is enough, or if one should use a VPN to encrypt their data depends entirely on what kinds of activities that person intends to engage in. For those who err on the side of caution, encrypting data via a VPN will give a little extra comfort.
How to know that a proxy is working
So, with a server chosen and a subscription paid for, how does anyone know that a proxy service actually works for them? Well, one option would be to assume that it is working as long as nothing goes wrong – but that is clearly not a good one. Rather than just hoping for the best, one can easily use a site like WhatIsMyIP? to detect whether or not their proxy is actively working for them. Their disclaimer: some proxies are too good at hiding for the tool to detect them (though others may be able to.)
This may be sufficient depending on what exactly someone is doing with computer. TorrentFreak advises torrent users to be wary of some of the simple tools that are often used to check a computer’s IP address. Those using their proxy to conceal torrenting activities should know that they need to check not only what their visible IP address is, but also what address they are broadcasting through their torrents.
They recommend Do I Leak for a more thorough check.
Ready to get started?
All this talk of proxies can be a little intimidating.
If the idea of browsing anonymously sounds appealing, the best thing to do is try it. While the options seem complicated, the fact is that choosing a service will be the hardest part. After that, using a proxy is fairly simple!