What’s a proxy?
As you would guess, proxies are some kind of gateways that will allow you to pretend what you are not when surfing the internet. In fact, proxies rewrite some of your internet packets (those that give some information about you, your computer) – so that it gives some privacy. Simply put, the main use of proxies is for hiding the origin or destination of an internet a query.
If we detail it a bit, a proxy can be used for:
- Accessing a service which is accessible only from a particular country. Popular services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Youtube only make their services available to citizens based in individual states. Thus accessing websites that are geo-restricted, if you aren’t physically based in these countries, will result in an “excuse message” saying that this service isn’t available in your country;
- Overcoming some censorship that can be set at your workplace, or even within a country (for the case of some dictatorship countries for example);
- Visiting sites where you don’t want to leave some traces about your real IP address that may allow to track you easily.
Simply put, by using a proxy, you send your internet traffic to a gateway, this gateway then rewrites that query by using his information instead of yours. The destination internet sites that receive the query would think then that the requests originate from the proxy server, instead of your computer.
What are the limitations of proxies?
Proxies were initially conceived for the HTTP and https protocols. Then other protocols could be handled (for example FTP or SOCKS proxy). HTTP is the most commonly used protocol on the internet; it is assumed that most applications are using it now. However, as technology evolves, more and more protocols can’t be passed through a proxy. It is one of the limits of using a proxy.
Apart from that, using an HTTP proxy usually requires some modification on the user’s browser (some implementations can be set up as a transparent proxy though). But by requesting the user to do some changes on his browser, it limits the number of people who can do that with confidence.
I know there are some ways to configure proxies on the user’s browser automatically, but those means are usually implemented at corporate-level: which can’t always be implemented by the independent worker.
Why use a free proxy and what are the risks and limitations?
As a single-user, it is always tempting to use a Free proxy (who doesn’t love free things?). Here, at how-to-hide-ip, we have reviewed few of those Free Proxies, and while they can come handy, more often than not, they come along with some options that you don’t necessarily need. In fact, they either display too many ads for anything you’ll be doing online, or they also want to change some of your browser’s settings: your home page, your default search engine, and so on and so forth.
Why not use a free proxy?
It is where the issue lies when using a proxy server: the fact that it acts as a gateway means that the proxy still sees who you are and what you are doing. But what is the information that the proxy server sees:
- The name and version of your browser;
- The modules you have (Flash, Quicktime, Java);
- Your operating system;
- The resolution of your screen;
- The language of your browser;
You may say to yourself that those aren’t necessarily sensitive information. It is only right for those who don’t know what to do with them. As you would see, there’s more data revealed than your only IP address. And the information revealed here is a treasure trove for some hackers: by knowing your browser and modules version, for example, they know what are the flaws and security breach that come with them. What if that same proxy server injected some malicious code into your browser to execute?
When not to use free proxies?
For online transactions
The most obvious situation is: you shouldn’t use free proxy services for any confidential online transactions you’ll be doing. So if you want to access your Paypal account or even your bank account: forget about going through a free proxy.
Concerning privacy: you definitely shouldn’t use a free proxy if you need to enter some credentials on any website. In fact, by using a proxy (even anonymous proxy), you are sending all your traffic to one gateway server before it spreads over the internet. By wanting to access your username and password of Gmail through a proxy server, you are also at risk of exposing your Gmail credentials, for example.
But one of the things that annoy me when using a free proxy is the omnipresence of ads. While I understand that the business model of an open proxy lies somewhere else (ads, for example), I find it harsh to flood everybody that is using the free proxy to watch/listen to some advertisements.
Free proxy alternative
If you need more online privacy, there are better tools than free proxies. Check the VPN services from our hide IP tools list.
Let’s consider another fact: let’s say that you are using a free proxy for accessing your Gmail or Facebook (or whatever online account): this means that the proxy need to know the credentials you are entering so as to be able to rewrite it. Hmm, ain’t that dangerous?
What do you think? Are you using such a free proxy? Let us know in the comments below.