A Beginner’s Guide to Web Proxy Servers

by Patricia Staino | Published on May 18, 2022

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Web proxy servers promise privacy and anonymity to avid web browsers, but SMBs should weigh their inherent risks when considering them.

You may have seen the phrase “web proxy server” floating around tech documentation but never gave it much thought. And you may not need to do so, although it definitely has its champions. It can be especially effective if you worry about privacy issues, cookies, and Big Brother.

If that sounds like you, you might consider using a web proxy to connect to the internet.

Overview: What is a web proxy?

When you connect to the internet, your computer’s server talks to the website’s server, proves you’re trustworthy, and gains access to the site. This usually takes place in a few seconds or less.

However, that interaction allows the site to see your IP address, which it can store and leverage in the future. For example, if you return to that site, it might show ads targeted at your recent activity or return you to your abandoned shopping cart.

For those who don’t like the internet tracking every move they make, a web proxy acts as a shield that guards their identity. Rather than connect directly to a site, you connect to an online proxy, which then connects to your destination on the web. The web proxy acts as the middleman between your computer and your destination, obscuring your true IP address so you can’t be remembered or tracked.

If you follow The Ascent’s advice on how to prevent cyberattacks, you might be thinking, Hmmm, that sounds a lot like my VPN. And yes, it does. A virtual private network (VPN) is a device that is highly recommended for small businesses, especially if your employees work remotely. Employees connect to your network through the VPN, which verifies their identity.

VPNs ensure unauthorized users (hackers) don’t gain entry to your sensitive data, intellectual property, or systems. They are especially beneficial to any laptop user who habitually connects to the internet through public WiFi systems, which are especially vulnerable to hackers.

While both VPNs and web proxy servers act as intermediaries between your computer and the internet, the main difference is that a VPN encrypts all data sent between a device and a site.

The proxy online, however, just redirects the connection through its own IP address and only encrypts data when it’s directed to do so. While a VPN may aid in any zero-trust protocols you have in place, a web proxy server actually flies in the face of those security measures.

5 reasons you should use an online web proxy

Right about now you’re thinking, Well, you just told me VPNs are better than connecting through a proxy server online, so I guess I’ll stick with my VPN.

Still, there are reasons you might consider using a proxy browser.

1. Control internet access

This is for all the concerned parents or productivity-minded bosses out there. Proxy servers can monitor users’ internet access. You can set them up to block sites with content you deem unacceptable for children or easily distracted employees. Additionally, you can program them to log all web requests, in case you want to see what your employees do online all day.

2. Improve privacy

As mentioned above, a proxy site changes your IP address and other identifying data so your personal information stays private. The server you connect to will not know who you are and even if they store the IP address and connection information, it will be that of the proxy browser, not your computer.

3. Access blocked sites

While you may use a proxy server to restrict employees from accessing certain websites, they, in turn, can use one to access blocked websites. If they have access to a proxy server, they can sign on to the blocked site through that browser. Since their workstation computer IP address will reflect their proxy server’s address, they can freely navigate your forbidden sites despite your proxy’s restrictions.

4. Improve speed and save bandwidth

Web proxies cache web pages, which means they save the most recent copy of oft-used websites. If multiple employees frequently visit the same site, rather than retransmitting the site every time someone connects to it, the proxy can readily retrieve the site from the cache. This saves on bandwidth and improves connection speeds.

5. Improve security

You can configure proxy servers to encrypt certain requests to servers. Many organizations pair a proxy server with a VPN to cover all their bases. Additionally, proxy servers prevent most types of malware from accessing your server and network through the connection, which significantly increases security.

The 4 types of proxy servers

There are four main types of proxies. The one you choose depends on your main purpose in using a web proxy.

1. Transparent

A transparent proxy doesn’t quite perform the main function of a proxy -- it won’t shield your IP address. It tells the website to which you’re connecting that it is a proxy server and passes along your IP address to the site. This type of proxy is used by organizations that are more concerned with filtering incoming content, such as schools, public libraries, and government agencies.

2. Anonymous

An anonymous proxy tells a website that it’s a proxy, but it doesn’t pass along your IP address like a transparent proxy will. It keeps your browsing history private, protects you against identity theft, and prevents websites from sending you targeted marketing content.

3. Distorting

A distorting proxy is a bit craftier, identifying itself as a proxy server but sending the website a false IP address for your location. This is similar to the anonymous proxy but has the added benefit of making you appear to be in a different location than where you are, further obscuring your identity.

4. High anonymity

These servers periodically change the IP address they send the web server, so the site can’t keep track of its incoming traffic. This is the most private and secure type of proxy server.

Risks of using a web proxy

Now, you might be thinking this anonymity stuff is pretty cool, especially if it’s going to cut down on the number of ads you’re forced to endure. But before turning to a web proxy, understand there are a number of risks involved.

Beware the free web proxy

A free proxy is free because it was less expensive to develop. That means whoever built it probably didn’t spend a lot of thought or time in securing backend encryption. A free proxy server often experiences performance issues and data security hiccups. Worse, many free web proxies may be looking to swipe your credit card info and personal data.

Logging your browser history

Remember how you liked the idea of a web proxy keeping your browsing history private? Well, many proxy servers save your unencrypted IP address and web request information, data they may sell to another vendor. Be sure you read the fine print of your service agreement or ask the administrator how they use the data they collect.

Spam and virus attacks

If you liked the idea of reducing the amount of marketing content served up on the websites you visit, be advised that you will see more banners and ads when you connect to a site through a proxy server. Additionally, irresponsible proxy providers can inflict viruses and spam into your web session, which you may end up downloading to your computer.

Identity theft

Although a web proxy keeps your IP address and data private from the websites you visit, keep in mind that the proxy vendor has access to everything. That means they can use your proxy address in bad faith to carry out dark deeds on the internet. Eventually these acts could be traced back to you. Because you’ve willingly handed over your information, no endpoint security measures will protect you against this threat.

How to set up your web proxy

If, armed with all this information, you believe a web proxy fits your needs, they are incredibly easy to set up.

On a PC running Windows 10, your computer should automatically detect proxy settings. To set a proxy using an automatic configuration script provided by the proxy server vendor:

  1. Click on Settings, then Network & Internet.
  2. Click on Proxy in the drop-down list of internet-related settings. The list of available proxy settings appears.
  3. In the Automatic Proxy Setup section, set the Use Setup Script switch to On.
  4. Enter the configuration script and click Save.
  5. Close settings.

To set up a proxy server on a Mac:

  1. Use Safari as your web browser.
  2. In the Safari app, choose Safari>Preferences, then click Advanced.
  3. Click Change Settings (next to Proxies).
  4. Change the proxy settings using the information your network administrator provided.
  5. Click OK.

You get what you pay for

In most cybersecurity stories, we strongly urge you to consider the device/tool/protocol/best practice we’ve spent hundreds of words describing. When it comes to web proxy servers, however, small business owners should use caution before taking that step.

The one true benefit for businesses is the ability to block websites and filter incoming content. But that may not be worth the risk of your information falling into the hands of a bad actor. If you do consider using a web proxy server, be sure to thoroughly vet the provider, and verify how and where your data will be stored.

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