The internet can be dangerous. Viruses, spam, privacy leaks, and other threats inflict billions of dollars worth of damage every year. Companies and individuals must fight back with various tools to stay safe. While most methods are efficient, the problem is they might raise some risks of their own.
Security vulnerabilities might also come with proxy servers, so exploring whether they are safe is crucial. The short answer to this question is yes, but there are a few pitfalls to avoid, and we will cover them here.
What are proxy servers?
Every time you want to load a website on the internet, your device sends a request to its server and receives a response with the needed data. A proxy service enables you to have an intermediary server, which can receive requests first and only then forward them to the target.
Such a process ensures that your IP address is invisible to visited websites. IP stands for “internet protocol”; simply put, it is a collection of rules governing how data is transferred between devices online. They define that every one of them must have a unique string of numbers identifying them for communication to happen.
However, IP addresses give away more private information than most want to share. Your approximate location and internet service provider (ISP) can be learned from it, which enables websites to track users. By hiding your IP address, proxies can only increase your security online. Or so it seems at first glance.
Once you use a proxy, all the transferred data goes through that server, so you must put a lot of trust in the provider and the proxy you chose. If the server isn’t secure, cybercriminals could hack into your data, attack you with spam ads, viruses, or even steal your identity.
Are some proxy types more secure?
It is true that sharing connections between multiple users can slow down the speed and expose proxy IP addresses to bans. You can never be sure how others utilize proxies, how much bandwidth they use, and whether they do it legally.
In this sense, choosing a dedicated proxy to be the only one accessing it is a safer choice. But it is hard to agree that more severe threats, such as data leaks, are more often when using shared proxies. If the provider’s proxy servers are insecure, both dedicated and shared proxies suffer.
Differences between residential and datacenter proxies aren’t critical either. If the infrastructure is set up and monitored well, ISP-verified home connections and servers in data centers are more or less equally secure from attacks. Therefore, most of the criticism proxies get is when we discuss free proxies.
Security risks of free proxies
It is tempting to save a buck and choose free proxies – we’ve all been there. But nothing in life is actually free, so the price you pay for free proxies is your security and privacy. Maintaining a proxy service is demanding, requiring a lot of hardware and software supervised 24/7.
Free proxy providers cover their costs by selling users’ data or infecting them with malware which can take over computer control and make it a part of a botnet. It does not matter what type of proxy the free provider advertises – the risks are the same because most of them are lying about proxy type.
Free proxies usually come in two types – web proxies and lists. Free web proxies are dedicated websites that allow entering a URL to visit while not leaving their page. It is a painstakingly slow and inflexible process, not to mention that they will spam you with ads and malware.
Free proxy lists promise more functionality by giving you access to proxy IP addresses and ports. Notice that there aren’t any passwords, so no one knows how many users logged in and for what purposes. Most of the proxies in such lists are inactive, so you will spend a lot of time searching.
Free proxies are the only really unsafe proxy type, and you should avoid them at all costs. Any valuable information (files, passwords, payment information, etc.) will likely get stolen. Unfortunately, too many people make the mistake of using them.
How trusted providers ensure security?
Trustworthy providers have a good track record in review sites, and their data centers are certified. It is good to look for certificates, such as ISO 27001. At the bottom of this page, you can see how proxy service providers display their certifications. Companies with them have invested heavily in protecting their customers’ data, and this fact is certified by independent experts.
Proxy servers must be constantly maintained and monitored by professionals to protect them from threats. While we cannot know whether a provider is looking after servers well, a good sign of well-maintained proxies is responsive customer support. Be sure to contact them before making a purchase.
Another important point is to know from where the IP addresses originate. Many providers, especially free ones, do not source their proxies ethically. For example, some residential proxies in the market are sourced from hacked devices or without the owner’s consent. Unethical practices increase security risks or can even get you in legal trouble.
We can also raise the question of whether proxies are safe from a legal standpoint. In most western countries, such as the USA or the EU, using proxies is an entirely legal and well-regulated practice. Then, the question is only whether the provider abides by the government’s rules.
However, some countries, especially authoritarian ones, restrict the internet along with proxies. Using proxies in countries like North Korea could get you in serious legal trouble.
Even if proxy services are legal in your country, some actions that proxies enable might not be. For example, using proxies to collect copyrighted data or to commit fraud might get you in legal trouble. Make sure your projects are permitted if you want to stay safe.
Often, users blame proxies for what really isn’t their fault. Security threats and legal issues might come from third-party software you use with proxies. For example, it is more convenient to rotate proxies with a browser extension, but not all of them are safe and can infect you with malware, show ads, or steal your proxy passwords.
In order to stay on the safe side, use only the software your provider created or recommended. Trusted providers have their own software for rotating proxies, testing IPs, collecting data, and more. Such measures increase the security of proxy services significantly.
If your provider doesn’t create additional software, an easy and safe solution is to set up a proxy server in your PC or browser settings. It won’t be convenient to switch between proxies in the long run, but it is a safe option that doesn’t require downloading any software that might be malicious.
Are VPNs safer?
Many proponents of virtual private networks (VPNs) want you to believe that they are a safer choice than a proxy service. The basis of such claims is the encryption VPNs provide, meaning that no one, even the provider, can access your data. However, such claims are only true in theory.
There were instances when VPN service providers gave up their user data to the government. It isn’t a problem if you abide by the law, but it puts quite some doubt on whether the no-logs policies and encryption are as far-reaching as they claim.
An additional argument for proxies is that VPNs lack the applicability of proxies. VPNs are best for casually browsing the internet. Any other task requiring sending large amounts of data, switching multiple IP addresses, or setting up bots and other software is impossible with VPNs.
Paid proxy service is definitely a safe purchase, but only when it comes from a trusted provider and is used correctly for the right purposes. The best advice here is not to rush your decision and ensure that your proxy service provider is known to be trustworthy. All else will fall into place eventually.