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Proxy vs. VPN: A browser-based proxy isn't a VPN, but you might want one anyway

If it's built into your browser, it might not be a true VPN.

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Virtual private networks can be as confusing to understand as the threats they aim to protect us from. The average online denizen is often already mentally maxed-out trying to navigate the ever-shifting cyber-wilds while protecting their bank password in a digital minefield of skyrocketing malware attacks, suspicious public Wi-Fi and corpo-governmental mass surveillance. If that's you, I've got your straightforward 101 on the easiest kind of not-quite-VPN to get you started on a more secure browsing path. 

Here's how it works: There are router VPNs, which funnel all of the internet activity of everything connected to your Wi-Fi network into their servers to keep you anonymous. There are also VPN apps for your computer or mobile that will protect your anonymity only on the device you've put them on.

Read more: All the VPN terms you need to know

Then there are browser-based proxy services, which are often erroneously called browser-based VPNs. Where desktop and mobile VPNs protect the anonymity of your whole device -- all internet activity in your browsers, file-sharing apps and email clients -- browser-based proxies just anonymize what happens in your browser. They're less secure and less private, but far faster. 

Both browser-based VPNs and browser-based proxy services have risen in popularity in recent years, and common brands are trying their hands at this in one form or another.  

Browser operator Opera released what it called a free, unlimited VPN last year, but it was ultimately just a proxy service. It has only a handful of servers, and its encryption standards are objectively weak. Further, it appears that it is only possible to obscure IP data for sites opened in the Opera browser, and that there are no additional features as you'd find in desktop VPNs, like full encryption of all internet traffic coming from your device -- whether that's through your Netflix app or your torrenting client.

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Meanwhile, Mozilla is testing a VPN-like service for its Firefox browser. Firefox Private Network is another example of a proxy service incorrectly labelled as a VPN. Like Opera, the Firefox proxy only encrypts data originating from the Firefox browser, and not your entire operating system. 

Currently in its third test phase, Firefox Private Network offers more privacy than no proxy at all, but there are some notable drawbacks. Mozilla's partner on the project is Cloudflare, which will log user data during Firefox Private Network sessions. There are also no options to control which country you're routing your internet traffic through, which means there's no way to make a video streaming service think you're accessing content from the desired country. 

After this article's initial publication, Firefox reached out to remind us about a new VPN it's just started testing on top of its secure proxy. In a December release, Firefox outlined a somewhat cumbersome process: If you're an account holder, you can request an invitation to join a waitlist for the new full-device VPN, and if Firefox determines you're eligible, it will send you a link to allow you to purchase the VPN subscription for $5 a month. 

"Currently the VPN will be available for Windows 10 only, and like the rest of the (Firefox Private Network), it is only available to US-based Firefox account holders. Pricing and platform availability will continue to evolve and we look forward to hearing your feedback," Firefox said in its release.

Before bouncing over to Firefox to sign up, we recommend weighing that price and value against some of the competitors in our updated VPN directory

While there is no browser-based Microsoft Edge VPN, Windows 10 has a built-in VPN feature that can be enabled. It takes a bit of fiddling, but Microsoft has a step-by-step guide if you're looking to try it out. So far, there are no on-board VPN options for either Google Chrome or Safari. 

It's worth taking a moment to mention the Tor Browser, which isn't exactly a VPN, and isn't exactly a proxy service. Instead, it connects you to websites via a spread-out network of relays or "nodes." While a VPN should provide an encrypted tunnel for your traffic, Tor instead only encrypts traffic traveling between nodes. 

Its original nickname, "The Onion Router," points to its process of routing your data through multiple layers of security before it hits the site you're connecting to. It's a slower option and it's volunteer-run, but it's currently one of the most private ways to browse the internet. 

If all this seems confusing, you're not alone. Parsing which browser-based services offer privacy and which don't can be a time-consuming nightmare. To cut through the noise, your best bet is to skip the browser VPNs and proxies and go straight to a reliable, full-fledged VPN provider. 

Check out our directory of the best VPN services for 2020 to browse for one that'll fit you best, and also keep in mind the following red flags to watch out for when choosing a VPN and how to identify a good VPN

Read more: How to set up a VPN on your iPhone or Android phone (yes, you need one)

Update, Jan. 21: Adds comment from Firefox.