Proxy servers serve very different roles depending on how you use them. In corporate or academic networks proxy servers usually sit between the internal users and things like the world wide web or external resources. The idea is that rather than lots of individual machines accessing the internet directly, they are all routed through a single server or group of servers.
These are the proxies which allow web requests to be logged, checked for safety and controlled. They offer both control and protection to the people who control the network – ensuring that their is some accountability to those who use the internet, email and other web based services. They will check for viruses, block unsuitable websites and if required provide a log of what people are using the internet for.
Most large networks work on this basis, routing their traffic through proxies. The additional benefit is that often accessed resources can be cached and stored locally on the proxy. This means that network bandwidth is reduced and the speed of the network maximised especially in the case of a video proxy streaming multimedia content. The proxy is the guardian or barrier to the internet, usually sitting in a sort of demilitarized zone defending the internal network and computers.
However out in the internet – proxies perform a rather different function. They still operate technically in a similar way but for an entirely different reason. Proxies are used to protect and hide the identity of the computer user.
For example if you visit a web and download a file or watch a movie, then your activity is primarily recorded in two places – the website you visit and the ISP servers that enable your access. All the activity is registered against your unique IP address allocated to the device you have used to access the internet. Anything you do or say online can thus be linked back to your exact location. There is in reality virtually no privacy online, your web activity is effectively a matter of public record.
However if you route your connection through a proxy server, your privacy is potentially increased greatly –
- The website you visit will have no record of your specific IP address (only the proxies)
- Your ISP will have no record of all your individual internet activity ( just the proxy connections).
This is a slight simplification but it basically summarises the situation of why people use proxies. To create a barrier between your computer, your ISP and primarily the web servers you visit. Many people are very aware of the intense of logging and marketing that goes online and are unhappy that everything they do is recorded and logged – a proxy offers some protection against this.
Throughout this website you’ll find much more information on proxies and related technologies. There are articles covering privacy aspects, freedom of speech and of course the technical aspects of using proxies. One of the recurring themes is that you are in some senses handing over responsibility of your privacy to whoever is running and controlling the proxy server itself. When you route through a proxy although you have some anonymity from your ISP and the websites you visit, there is the potential for this to be abused.
This is the primary reason that although free, proxies are still available online – they should not be used. As ever something for free, often carries a catch and the free services are often controlled by hackers, identity thieves and cyber criminals eager to swipe your data and steal your passwords.