Proxies are popular tools for enhancing online privacy and improving online security. A proxy server acts as an intermediary between your device and the wider internet. In doing so, a proxy server will obscure your device’s IP address. A proxy can also enable you to circumvent many of the most common filtering and blocking techniques used by ISPs and businesses such as hotels and cafes.
If you look online, you will see a plethora of options for proxy providers. Some of these are premium services that you have to subscribe to, but there are also a large number of free proxy services available. Whether you are hard up for cash or not, the allure of a free proxy service can be hard to pass up.
However, if someone is encouraging you to try out a free proxy service, you should instantly be suspicious. It is never a good idea to use free proxies. Let’s take a look at why.
A proxy consists of a remote server to which the user connects. This server then interfaces with the wider internet on behalf of the user. It is imperative that you are able to fully trust the operator of any proxy server that you connect to. After all, they will have complete access to the data from your online session. They will know exactly what data you send and receive.
There are a number of things that an unscrupulous proxy server operator could do that could potentially be harmful to the user. In fact, snooping on user data is one of the least malicious things they can do.
Most web sites today use SSL encryption as standard. This means that, for the most part, the owner of a malicious proxy server can’t simply intercept and read your passwords. However, what they can do is configure their server to serve up a fake login page when you try and access your banking or social media accounts. If you enter your login information into this phishing page, the attacker can grab that information and pass you on to the correct website, leaving you none the wiser as to what has happened.
VPN and proxy services are, unsurprisingly, often used by criminals who want to hide their tracks. As a result, some governments and law enforcement agencies around the world have been known to set up free VPN and proxy services and monitor them. These services often function exactly as they are supposed to, but no one realizes that there are actually law enforcement agents tracking what users are doing with the service. Remember, while proxies and VPNs are great for providing anonymity, there is no way of hiding your real identity from the service operator.
It would be trivially easy for any competent law enforcement agency to trace individual users of a proxy service that the agency controls.
Perhaps the most benevolent form of the honeypot is one that is controlled by security researchers. These cybersecurity professionals set up proxy or VPN servers so that they can gain insights into how such services are being used. Like the government agents, these security professionals are interested in the data that flows through the network.
Sometimes, security researchers can gain invaluable insights into how cybercriminals are able to propagate malware and communicate with their bot networks.
How Real Is This Threat?
This is all well and good in theory, but is there actually a threat from using free VPN services, or is this all hypothetical? Well, as the following cases demonstrate, the threat of a honeypot in the wild is very real.
A couple of years ago, the hacktivist group called anonymous accused free VPN service VPNBook of transferring log files to law enforcement agencies. Allegedly, evidence provided by VPNBook was used to prosecute several members of the group. While nothing was ever definitively proved, many people queried how a fully-featured VPN could offer such high speeds, OpenVPN and AES encryption, and unlimited bandwidth without charging users anything.
There have also been numerous examples of peer to peer file sharing websites and platforms being used as honeypots. Even if the user connects to a file sharing service through a proxy, if they download a file infected with a tracker, it can completely undermine any efforts to stay anonymous.
There are lots of advantages to using a proxy to browse the internet. So many, in fact, that it is more than worth paying for the privilege. When you pay for a proxy service you are paying for a quality service; you are also paying for the services of a reputable business. It’s very easy to find out which proxy providers you can trust and which you can’t – a simple Google search should clear up any confusion.
But it is better to use no proxy at all than to use a free proxy. Remember, running a proxy service costs money. If you do not pay for using the service, its operator is most definitely making money out of you some other way.