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Anonymizers vs. VPNs: Everything You Need to Know

Anonymizers vs. VPNs: Everything You Need to Know

May 11, 2021

In the world of cybersecurity, people have seemingly infinite tools at their disposal -- cybersecurity is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. To stay safe online, then, it's important to understand the different tools that exist in order to ensure you use the right one for the task at hand.

Two of the most common and user-friendly cybersecurity tools are Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and anonymizers. But while they accomplish some of the same tasks, there are important differences between them. Here we explore some of these differences in order to provide insight into how to use them most effectively.

Should I use an anonymizer or a VPN?

In cybersecurity, an anonymizing proxy server, or anonymizer, is a tool that can be used to make online activity untraceable or anonymous. These proxies essentially act as intermediary "gateways" between an Internet user and their online destinations, just as VPNs do. So what are some key differences between the two technologies?

While VPNs require a user to download software, anonymizers do not. Instead, these proxy servers can be used by enabling certain settings in your browser or operating system, or by visiting the URLs of web-based anonymizing proxies. Application-based anonymizing proxy servers are also available, if desired.

Unlike anonymizers, VPNs encrypt your online traffic. While an anonymizer can mask your IP address, it will not protect you from being tracked by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or other third parties. Therefore, this technology is useful for anonymous browsing, but should not be considered a strong cybersecurity tool.

Anonymizers work on an application level, while VPNs work on an operating system level. In other words, a VPN can cover all of the Internet traffic coming from your computer, while a proxy only covers the traffic coming from a specific browser or application. VPN users can employ a technique called split tunneling to choose which traffic will be routed through their VPN.

And any tool that reroutes your web traffic to protect your privacy will likely have some effect on your Internet speed. However, because VPNs also encrypt your data, they may be slower than anonymizers. The tradeoff is that VPNs often offer more robust security and privacy than anonymizers.

What are anonymizers, and how do they work?

Generally speaking, anonymizers are a quick and easy way for a user to mask their IP address and location, and to misdirect tracking and surveillance software. However, they won't protect your data from third-party onlookers. In essence, these proxy servers are a bit like anonymous forwarding services.

When you enter a URL into your browser's search bar, you are making a direct request for information from that URL's server. When you use a proxy server, the request goes to the proxy first. The proxy then anonymously forwards your request to the URL's server, which then anonymously forwards the response back to you. There are many different kinds of anonymizing proxy servers with varying levels of anonymity.  However, because anonymizers don't encrypt your data, it may still be vulnerable to interceptors.

Anonymizers help with fast, anonymous browsing -- but don't fully obscure your data

Because anonymizers usually don't require any software installation, they are generally considered to be ideal for quick, small-scale needs, such as browsing the web anonymously or evading geographic content blocks. For example, if you are on a public network, and you need to quickly mask your location to access geo-blocked content, a proxy may be the fastest and easiest way to do so. Anonymizers are also particularly popular in countries where Internet censorship is common.

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To access an anonymizer, simply enter its IP address into your Internet browser or operating system. (For more information on how to do this, check instructions that are specific to the platforms you are using.) Web-based proxy servers can be accessed by visiting the website where the proxy is hosted.

Overall, anonymizers can be a convenient solution for anonymous browsing, but remember: while they are a relatively inexpensive and easy way to browse anonymously, they do not provide the same level of cybersecurity that VPNs do.

Do VPNs provide higher levels of cybersecurity than proxy servers?

Like anonymizers, VPNs act as intermediaries between Internet users and the web. When you use a VPN, any Internet traffic that originates on your device will be anonymously routed through the VPN's server before reaching its final destination, and vice versa. As such, VPNs provide anonymous web-browsing services, just like anonymizing proxies do -- but they also do a lot more.

VPNs specifically protect the information that is being sent to and from your device, hiding this data from hackers, trackers, onlookers, and anyone who hasn't been explicitly granted permission to access it. This is accomplished by creating a secure data "tunnel." Instead of going directly to its final destination, unencrypted Internet traffic originating on your device is first routed to your VPN, which encrypts the data and anonymously sends it to its final destination: for example, a website, your company's local network, or an email server.

Once the request reaches its final destination, the process is reversed. The data is sent back to the user's VPN, where it is finally decrypted and sent back to the device that made the original request. In short, encryption is what allows VPNs to offer a higher level of security than anonymizing proxy servers.

Because their operations are more elaborate, VPNs can be slower than anonymizers, however. And while many trustworthy anonymizers are free to use, you should never trust a VPN that claims to be "free." These services often manipulate or log user information with data mining software.

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Oct 1, 2020
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