The Internet can be a scary place: we’re under near constant attack from ransomware and botnets – on work computers, personal devices, even smart home devices like thermostats and baby monitors.
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Proxy and VPN Defined
Both VPNs and proxies enable a higher degree of privacy than you might otherwise have, allowing you to access the internet anonymously by hiding your IP in various ways. But how they do that is quite different.
A proxy acts as a gateway – it’s ideal for basic functions like anonymous web browsing and managing (or circumventing) content restrictions. Proxy servers excel at IP masking and misdirection, making them good for viewing geographically limited content. They allow users to bypass content restrictions and monitoring, or enforce website content restrictions – so that you can’t log into certain web pages on company time.
A VPN client on your computer establishes a secure tunnel with the VPN server, replacing your local ISP routing. VPN connections encrypt and secure all of your network traffic, not just the HTTP or SOCKS calls from your browser like a proxy server.
VPNs are great when you need to use the WIFI at a local coffee shop: using a VPN instead of the potentially completely unencrypted local WIFI adds another layer of privacy – who knows who is lurking on that network, just sitting in the corner sipping coffee and waiting to steal your credit card digits?
Proxy and VPN Drawbacks
If you’re using proxy servers to mask your internet activity, you might see performance issues that prevent you from streaming or downloading the thing you are trying to get. High ping times and other traffic on the proxy server can cause web pages to load slowly. For this reason, some users pay for a private proxy server which limits the number of users that access it, speeding up your connections.
Proxies are also vulnerable to security exploits: they can be open to attack, allowing the bad guys to infiltrate networks or steal private data. Some proxies can still track (and store) your browsing habits, as well as recording usernames and passwords – rendering that promise of anonymity null.
VPNs can also suffer from performance issues, depending on proximity to the VPN server you’re connecting with. VPNs use a local client to create the connection to the VPN server, so any local CPU or memory issues will slow down the connections. VPNs are typically more expensive to use (and maintain) than a proxy server, and they are often more complex to manage.
Just like proxy servers, VPNs can’t guarantee anonymity while browsing. Neither of these services will always encrypt your traffic all the way to the web server. A VPN only guarantees an end-to-end encrypted connection if you use the HTTPS protocol when you go to a new web address. Your data will be encrypted to the VPN, but from that point on, it could be unencrypted to the web server. For some sites, this may be irrelevant: an information-only webpage with no login or payment options for example, but for any sites that require a login or online payments – or any sensitive data – make sure the website is enabled to use HTTPS. Remember, the S stands for moderately more secure.
Proxy and VPN Benefits
The biggest argument to use a VPN instead of a proxy is the total encryption for all traffic you get with the VPN. Dollar for dollar, a VPN is more secure than a similarly priced proxy. VPN providers maintain their own networks and you use their IP addresses for your connections. The top VPN providers advertise a logless policy, which means they don’t have data to provide to anyone about your browsing habits.
If you’re an IT business owner charged with the security of data and users, there are advantages to both, and you likely have both configured for your company. For users in the network, you might route traffic through a proxy server to log web traffic, protect the organization from malware or other attacks, and enforce a web content policy.
When users are operating out of the office, you will want to use a VPN to create a secure connection to access the company resources (email, internal shares, etc.).
Proxy vs VPN: Which is Right for me?
Privacy and security matter these days, regardless of if it’s your company data or your own personal data you need to protect. Make sure you’re investing time and money into the correct tools for your security goals: both proxies and VPNs add an additional layer of security and privacy to your data.
If you want to enable your team to work remotely with secure access to the company resources, set up and maintain a VPN users to access the network with the VPN.
If your concerns are more around “what websites are my users hitting,” a proxy server is a better tool.
To get the most bang for the buck (and to protect your data as a security-aware citizen), sign up for a well-regarded VPN service. For the most part, VPN services allow you to use servers in different locations to work around content restrictions. If you need to use a free proxy server occasionally for that purpose as well, just be aware of the risks.
If you’re just starting to implement your data security strategy on an enterprise level, there are more complex attack vectors to account for. Insider threats, APTs, privileged account escalations – along with plain old social engineering – are just as dangerous to your data as an unencrypted data stream.
Neither a proxy nor a VPN will protect you from 100% of the cybersecurity threats your company will encounter: they won’t stop an insider from stealing personal data, a ransomware attack, or a coordinated infiltration effort.
Varonis Edge adds perimeter telemetry to security analytics – monitoring proxy, VPN, and DNS to help bridge that gap: you’ll be able to see when an attacker breaks through a VPN, get alerts when sensitive data is uploaded to external websites, more. See how it works with a 1:1 demo – and discover how Varonis helps secure your data from perimeter attacks.
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Michael has worked as a sysadmin and software developer for Silicon Valley startups, the US Navy, and everything in between.