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Differences between VPN and Web Proxy

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Most Applications on the Web rely on identifying their users for various factors including advertisements while other applications give content access to users only from a specific location. VPN and Web Proxy are popular tools that end-users use to address these issues by hiding their real identity.

In this article, we have explored the differences between VPN and Web Proxy in detail both from technical and end-user standpoint.

Table of contents:

  1. Understanding VPN and Proxy briefly
  2. How VPN and Web Proxy differ?
    • VPN protects all your internet activity
    • Encryption in VPN only
    • Is my IP hidden by both VPN and Proxy?
    • How VPN and Proxy are used?
    • Protocols used in VPN and Proxy
    • Tunnelling in VPNs
    • Is VPN use difficult to detect compared to Proxy use?

Understanding VPN and Proxy briefly

VPN (Virtual Private Network) and Proxy are tools that are mainly used to hide the IP address of an end-user. People use it to access geo-blocked websites but business use both VPN and Web proxy in wide range of applications.

The core steps followed by VPN and Proxy are:

  1. User interacts with an application on a computer connected to a network.
  2. Computer prepares a request to be sent to an external website.
  3. EXTRA for VPN: The request is encrypted by the VPN client on the user's computer.
  4. FOR both VPN and Web Proxy: The request (encrypted in case of VPN) is sent to VPN servers or Web Proxy servers respectively.
  5. For VPN and Web Proxy: The VPN server or Web Proxy server decrypts the request and sends the decrypted (original) request as an ordinary user.
  6. For VPN and Web Proxy: The VPN or Web Proxy server receives the response from the target website.
  7. EXTRA for VPN: The response is encrypted by the VPN server.
  8. The response is sent back to the user's computer. If VPN is used, the VPN client will first decrypt the response and then, display it to the user.

If VPN or Web proxy is not used, then the user's computer directly communicates with the website's server.

You will notice that if VPN or Web Proxy server is used, then the target website's server only interacts with the VPN or Web Proxy servers and hence, has no information about the real user.

For the above step, it may seem that VPN only has encryption as an extra layer but it is more than that both in terms of technical details and use-cases.

How VPN and Web Proxy differ?

In this section, we will understand how VPN and Web Proxy differ from a practical and technical standpoint.

1. VPN protects all your internet activity

If you are using VPN, all your internet activity goes through the VPN server so your entire data is encrypted and your IP address and location is never revealed to any application.

At the same time, Web Proxy works with only one application at a time. If you have configured your web browser like Google Chrome to use a proxy, then every web request is passed through a proxy server. This hides your IP and location from websites but it can be revealed if the website is using technologies like WebRTC.

Moreover, if other applications on your system like a game is not configured to use the proxy, your IP and location will be leaked through it.

Hence, VPN is the choice if you want complete security and privacy. Proxy is an option if you are a casual user that wants to hide his/ her IP address from a particular website or application to bypass geo-blocking.

2. Encryption in VPN only

Encryption is a process of encoding data such that only trusted entities (sender and receiver) can retrieve the original message from the encoded data. If you get access to the encrypted data somehow, you will not be able to convert it to the original message. Hence, data remains secured.

There are different encryption algorithms like RSA RC4, SipHash24, Camellia, 3DES and much more. Different VPN services use different algorithms.

VPN encrypts the entire data coming out of your computer and passes it to a VPN server. As the data is encrypted, even your ISP or Government cannot detect your internet activity. Moreover, as all requests pass through a secured VPN server, the target websites and applications do not have any information.

On the other hand, Web proxy does not encrypt data. Hence, your ISP can access your Internet activity but your IP remains hidden from the target website/ application.
In short, VPN uses encryption to enforce an additional layer of security and privacy.

3. Is my IP hidden by both VPN and Proxy?

In short, yes. The client's IP address is replaced by the IP address of the VPN server or Proxy server.

This does not mean that no one can detect your actual IP address.

Your IP address is visible to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and visible to any Government Surveillance. The key is that as your IP address is hidden by VPN or Proxy, it will not be linked to any internet activity so you are secure.

If you are using a Proxy:

  • Your IP address is hidden only from the website or application you are using.
  • In this case, the third-party application can detect that you are using a proxy and can get access to your original IP using another application which is not protected by proxy or if the website is using WebRTC.

If you are using a VPN, you are in a better position:

  • Your IP address is hidden from all applications running on your computer as VPN operates on Operating System (OS) level / Firewall.
  • Some VPNs keep a log of internet activity and can reveal your original IP address in case of Government warrant or in case of VPN leaks.

So, if you are using a reliable VPN, your IP address is private and your internet activity will not be accessible to anyone.

4. How VPN and Proxy are used?

VPN is mainly, used:

  • For complete security and privacy by individuals
  • To avoid surveillance by Government and ISPs
  • Access public Wi-Fi in a secured way
  • By companies to ensure their network, confidential data and laptop of their employees are secure from hacking attempts.

Proxy is mainly used:

  • By casual users to bypass geo-blocking or access a blocked site occasionally by hiding their IP.
  • By school, university or parents to block access to certain websites on their network.
  • By hotels and restaurants on their free Wi-Fi to provide password-based limited internet access to their customers.

5. Protocols used in VPN and Proxy

Protocol in Computer Network is a set of rules that determine how data is processed and transmitted across two devices on the same network. It can be visualized as a standard medium of communication.

There are several protocols supporting different types of data (like text, video streaming) with their own benefits.

Web Proxy is supported by almost all web applications so it uses the same set of protocols used by web applications. The 4 protocols used by Web proxy are:

  • HTTP
  • HTTPS
  • SSL (Secure Socket Layer)
  • SOCKS

On the other hand, VPN does not use the same set of protocols to maintain a higher level of control and security. There are 6 standard protocols used by VPN:

  • PPTP
  • SSTP
  • L2TP
  • IKEv2
  • OpenVPN
  • WireGuard

Beyond these, premium VPN providers build and use their own proprietary VPN protocols which are expected to provide better security as implementation details are not publicly available and has better performance. For example, NordVPN has designed their own VPN protocol named NordLynx.

Q. What this means to you as an end user?

As an end-user, this means that VPN uses a custom solution to handle your web data which is general-purpose, secure and performant. On the other hand, proxy leverages the common solution used by web applications and has its own limitations if you have not configured proxy for all protocols.

6. Tunnelling in VPNs

A VPN establishes a secured encrypted tunnel between the user and VPN server by using their custom protocols. This helps ensure security and privacy at the highest level.

On the other hand, Web proxy leverage existing protocols and hence, does not establish a tunnel between the user and proxy server. Hence, the connection between the user and proxy server can be compromised.

7. Is VPN use difficult to detect compared to Proxy use?

As an end-user, you must be aware that there exist techniques which can be used to detect if the client is using VPN or Proxy to access a website.

Some of the popular techniques used by websites are:

  • Flow latency vs Ping latency test: Can be used to detect VPN
  • Check IP in banned IP lists like FireHOL Banned IP
  • Request invalid URL test
  • WebRTC test for detecting proxy
  • TCP/IP fingerprint test for proxy detection
  • Datacentre IP test for both proxy and VPN (if the server is a rented server from a hosting company like AWS)
  • IP time zone vs browser time zone test: for detecting proxy and VPN (fails if the server is in a different country)
  • HTTP proxy headers test for detecting proxy use
  • Advanced AI techniques

Many sites implementing geo-blocking use such advanced techniques. On the other hand, premium VPN services improve their servers to bypass these detection techniques.

In short, if you are using a proxy, it is easy for a website to detect that you are using a proxy to hide your IP and real location. If you are using a premium VPN, sites will not be able to detect your VPN use but if you are using a free VPN service, then detection is possible.

With this article at OpenGenus, you should have the complete idea of VPN and Web Proxy now. You must be in a position to better judge which service you must use depending on your use-case.

Differences between VPN and Web Proxy
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