A proxy server sits between your computer or smartphone and other devices on the internet, providing an extra layer of security and, often, anonymity. You can set one up for use for personal browsing, and you may already be using one at your workplace.
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What Is a Proxy Server?
A proxy server is a computer that channels traffic from other computers to the internet. It takes requests for websites, emails, and other online information from your computer, reissues them using its name and internet protocol address, and forwards them on to their destinations. When it receives a response, it does the same in reverse, taking the response, and forwarding it back to your computer.
Most operating systems, including Windows, iOS, macOS and Android, enable you to configure a proxy server for your internet traffic. If you're using such a server at work, the IT department can likely help you with this. If you're using one for your personal use, whoever runs the proxy server supplies the appropriate settings.
Why Should I Use a Proxy Server?
There are several reasons to use a proxy server. One is privacy. Some proxy servers hide your IP address, making it difficult for someone to trace your internet activity back to you.
Another reason to use a proxy server is speed. Some proxy servers store copies of files and websites, a process known as caching, so when you or another user of the proxy server revisits a website, it loads the stored copy first rather than waiting for the actual website. Pages load faster as a result.
Proxy servers also provide security by detecting malware, phishing sites, and other malicious content before it reaches your computer. They can warn you, filter out the dangerous material, or block sites entirely that have harmful code and files on them. Some also encrypt the traffic between your devices and the proxy server, which provides an extra boost of security if you're on a connection you don't trust to be free of eavesdroppers.
Some proxy servers filter out other types of unwanted content, such as pornography, hate speech and violence. Schools, libraries and employers use these to keep their computer users from loading that kind of content, and parents use them to regulate what their children see online.
What Are the Different Types of Proxy?
Proxy servers are grouped into different types depending on what they do.
A transparent proxy server reports your IP address to computers you connect to, while an anonymous proxy server keeps it private. A distorting proxy server reports a fake IP address for added security, and some proxy servers even change the fake IP address over time so that your activities aren't grouped together.
You may also see references to HTTP and SOCKS proxies. HTTP is the computer protocol, called the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, used for unsecured web traffic, and HTTP proxies are ones that specialize in routing that kind of message. SOCKS proxies are more generalized and can handle other kinds of messages, and they're often considered more secure because they allow for encrypted communication between your computer and the other server on the internet that it's talking to.
If you're going to use a proxy server, it's important to use one that you trust because whoever runs the server has the potential to eavesdrop on your internet use and even insert ads, malware or other unwanted content into your web browsing traffic.
Free proxy servers are available as well as paid ones. The paid ones are often faster and more secure. If you're looking to use a proxy server, make sure you find one run by someone reliable and with a cost structure that makes sense for your use.