A proxy server, also known as an application-level gateway, can be a piece of software or a computer. Either way, it functions as a gateway between your device and the server you are connected to. It’s like an ambassador that acts as your representative when transacting with different servers on the Web.
When you click a link on a web page, for example, the request to serve the linked page is sent to a proxy server. The proxy server then checks its list of web pages to see if it has a copy of the one you want to access. If it does, it sends you the page without going out to the Web to get it. If it doesn’t, it will go out and look for it on the Web then serve it to you.
Of course, this all happens in an instant, and you won’t even be aware of it. To you, it just looks like you clicked a link and got the page you wanted.
What are the Benefits of Using a Proxy Server?
Here are some reasons why it’s good to use a proxy server:
- It hides your IP address and gives you a bit of anonymity. Remember the example above about clicking a link? If the proxy server needs to go out and fetch you a fresh copy of the web page, it does so using its own IP address. So, your IP address remains concealed from that page’s server.
- You can access sites that would typically be restricted because of your geographic location. Content restriction is a typical digital rights management (DRM) practice employed by streaming service providers.
- Web pages load faster. If the page you want is already in the proxy server’s cache (its stash of web page copies), you will be able to view it instantly. However, if the proxy server does not yet have the page stored, it will take a bit more time before it is loaded on your browser.
- It allows for safer Web browsing. The proxy server admin can prevent users from accessing websites that might be dangerous. Sites that are known to contain malware are placed in a blocklist. When the user tries to access a site on this list, the proxy server can issue a warning, thus, saving the user from malware infection.
What are the Disadvantages?
Although a proxy server provides some level of protection and helps make Web browsing more efficient, it does present a couple of disadvantages such as:
- The data security it offers is minimal. Some proxy servers provide encryption, but it isn’t too tricky for advanced hackers to break. Think of the proxy as a single layer of protection within other security layers your computer or network needs to have.
- When you access a site using “HTTP” instead of “HTTPS,” whoever operates the proxy server you are using will be able to monitor your browsing activities.
- You also relinquish some control when you employ proxy servers. Whoever is controlling them could also block harmless websites if they choose to.
Are Proxy Servers Safe to Use?
If they are set up correctly and operated with integrity, then they are most likely safe to use.
A word of caution, though. There are free proxy services available. Keep in mind that whoever operates a proxy server can likely monitor your activities. Proxy server providers may also be able to control which sites you can and cannot access. If the proxy server operator is sketchy or technically incompetent, it may be wise not to use his service.