What is a Proxy Server and Are They Good for Security?

Brian Jefferson by    Published On - 09.17.2020   General

It is surprising how few people are aware that any time you load up a website or connect with another person online, your connection gives your “address” to that site/person. Naturally, when faced with this information, a lot of people are not happy with it.

A combination of cyber security and general privacy concerns requires most schools, organizations and a lot of the general public to adopt proxy servers. So, what exactly is a proxy server and how do they work?

What is a Proxy Server?

Proxy servers essentially act as bridges between a user and the internet. Instead of you having to connect directly to a website or another user, you instead connect to a proxy server and the proxy will communicate with the website on your behalf.

When using a proxy server, your browser will first connect to say proxy, and the proxy will forward your traffic to the website you are trying to access. This explains why a proxy server is also sometimes known as a “forward proxy.”

In addition to this, proxy servers will also receive traffic from the website and forward it back to the user. In this way, the user and the website can be separate from each, with the proxy acting as the go-between.

Logically (or etymologically), this makes complete sense, as a proxy in general language is someone or something acting on behalf of someone else. Wars have even been fought using proxies.

The specific proxy servers used worldwide vary depending on the use case, security requirements, compliance mandates or other specific requirements.

Proxy servers also act as more than just intermediaries…

What Exactly Do Proxy Servers Do?

There are many things that proxy servers can do to improve browsing experience, security and privacy. Here are a few:

  • Security: Proxy servers anonymize their users by changing their IP address, so that if a hacker wants to get access to a specific device on a network, it will be far more difficult to locate.
  • Firewalls: Firewalls are security systems that protect a network from external threats. Firewalls are mostly configured to block unwanted access or to protect users from installing malware onto their systems. Proxy servers are often deployed as hosts for these firewalls so that they can check out the legitimacy of traffic before it reaches the network.
  • Filtering Content: Many organizations use proxy servers as content filters to block outgoing traffic to certain undesirable or unsafe sites. However, savvy users can outsmart these content filters using proxy severs of their own.
  • Caching: Caching makes it easier and faster to access websites that you have visited before, by storing (or caching) data from those sites. Proxies can cache websites for you to help reduce latency.

What is the Difference Between a Proxy Server and a VPN?

You would be forgiven for confusing the two, as both allow you to connect to the internet through an intermediary. There are too many differences between proxy servers and VPNs to go through in this article, but the main difference is that a VPN encrypts data between a device and the VPN where a proxy simply forwards the traffic.

How Does a Proxy Server Work?

The address of your computer is known as an Internet Protocol or IP address. This address is unique to your computer and is the way in which the internet determines which computer to send the correct data to.

Proxy servers have their own unique IP address that only is known only by your computer. When you send a request over the internet (such as opening a web page), the request goes to the proxy server first. The proxy server then sends this request over the internet, collects the response and forwards you the data.

Proxy servers can make changes to the data as it passes through (without affecting how you see the page yourself). For example, proxy servers can change your IP address, filter content and encrypt your data (as we went through above).

The Types of Proxy Servers

There are numerous types of proxies that you can use depending on your needs and privacy requirements. These can be generally split into three:

  • Transparent Proxies: As the name suggests, these proxies do not hide your real IP address, providing no additional levels of security or privacy. Transparent proxies are mostly used for content filtering purpose, rather than anonymity, such as in schools or offices.
  • Anonymous Proxies: If you use an anonymous proxy, the proxy will provide a fake IP address instead of your real one. Sites will still be able to determine whether you are using a proxy server, they just will not be able to determine your real IP address. Some sites, however, have begun to block traffic from proxy servers.
  • High Anonymity Proxies: All the anonymity of an anonymous proxy, with the additional privacy or hiding the fact that you are using a proxy altogether.

Why You Should Use a Proxy Server

There are many benefits of using a proxy server, including:

  • To improve your data security: Data breaches are inevitable and can be severely costly. Most organizations today are rightly taking as many steps as possible to mitigate the risks of a data breach. Proxy servers help you do this by adding an additional layer of security between your servers and outside traffic. Attackers will therefore struggle to get their hands on the actual data where it is stored. Combine proxy servers with a Data Security Platform to add another layer of security through visibility of user behavior – and you’re on to a winner.
  • To help protect vulnerable people: Many parents many choose to make use of proxy filters to prevent their children from accessing harmful or unwanted websites. Proxy servers can also be used to monitor internet activity, so parents can determine how much time their children spend surfing the web.
  • Improving experience: Proxy servers can provide faster internet speeds when you visit the same website frequently (such as www.lepide.com, for example…). You can also use proxy servers to access content that is blocked.
  • Privacy: If you are someone who wants to browse the internet in private, you can use a proxy server to hide your IP address. Businesses can make use of proxy servers to hide important or private documents, such as development, research, shareholder information and more.

In summary, proxy servers are useful for several reasons; security being one of them. However, alone, they are not going to prevent you from experiencing a data breach. Most data breaches occur from within, as insider threats abuse their privileged access to your sensitive data. Proxy servers should be a piece of your security puzzle.

Another piece is ensuring that you have visibility over what your privileged users are doing with your most sensitive data. Using the Lepide Data Security Platform, you can classify your sensitive data by compliance, govern access to it and monitor user behavior.

If you’d like to see the Lepide Data Security Platform in action, schedule a demo with one of our engineers today.

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