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Shadowsocks is a free and open source SOCKS5 proxy and uses a selective routing method. It does not route all traffic through a central server.


Shadowsocks - The SOCKS5 Proxy for Bypassing Firewalls


There is a constant battle between users of the internet and governments worldwide. The former wants to enjoy exploring the vast internet space in privacy and freedom, and the latter wants to control the experience, or at least keep a close eye on browsing history. Whether it’s due to national security concerns or opposing views, governments use Internet Service Providers (ISP) to censor websites and services that fall under those categories.

It also seeks to ban the use of tools that can circumvent these restrictions. Hence, VPNs remain blocked in China, North Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. Technologies evolve to combat the stringent detection firewalls, and one such technology is Shadowsocks.

It’s a lightweight proxy solution that is designed to evade national firewalls and allow the user to access censored content on the web. Let us explore what makes Shadowsocks different from other proxies and if you should consider it as an alternative to VPN.


How Shadowsocks Works

Shadowsocks is based on SOCKS proxy, which allows users to use a remote server as a proxy for internet traffic.

It was born out of the need for a reliable way to bypass the Great Wall of China. The original developer named “Clowwindy” eventually shut down the project in 2015 after intervention by the police. But because Shadowproxy is open-source, Clowwindy’s project was spearheaded by other developers. Today, there are several forks of Shadowsocks available.

Shadowsocks works with other types of traffic, not just HTTP, and unlike most proxy services, it uses encryption and authentication. It is primarily a TCP-oriented protocol but works on UDP. It is another advantage Shadowsocks has over regular proxy servers.

The protocol grew popular in China thanks to its ability to evade the Great Wall of China. It can blend in with HTTPS traffic, thus making it difficult for detection systems to block it. Shadowsocks can be configured with different settings, which makes the job more difficult for the firewall. As we mentioned earlier, Shadowsocks utilizes encryption and now even supports AES encryption. So, the ISP as a man-in-the-middle cannot sniff your data packets.


Shadowsocks vs VPN

Virtual Private Networks is more suited when privacy is concerned. It creates a tunnel between you and the VPN server and secures communication via powerful encryption. Regular proxies can only send HTTP traffic through the remote server, including HTTPS proxies. But a VPN communicates every kind of traffic through the secure tunnel, giving network traffic a blanket treatment.

Shadowsocks, in comparison, is much more akin to a VPN. It can handle multiple types of traffic and also uses encryption. It is lightweight and allows you to reroute internet traffic to its destination through a remote server. But it is not built for privacy, which is the area where a VPN excels. A VPN creates a virtual tunnel between you and a VPN server, encapsulating everything in this tunnel.

Over time, the Great Firewall of China has grown to detect VPN traffic. Since there are a couple of major VPN providers and a handful of VPN protocols, it has become possible to detect the signature. And unlike Shadowsocks, which initiates a TCP connection and closes it, thus resembling normal HTTPS traffic behavior, a VPN connection stays open.

There have been developments in the VPN space to bypass such firewalls. Using OpenVPN on Port 443 is another way to blending in with HTTPS traffic, but the protocol’s signature can be detected through machine learning. So using OpenVPN is not completely reliable anymore in China.


Downsides to Shadowsocks

Because of these reasons, Shadowsocks is a great choice to dodge censorship blocks. However, it's not perfect and there are some downsides, especially if compared to VPNs or even Tor.

For one, Shadowsocks requires a bit of setup and you need to understand a little how computers and connections work. VPNs generally just need to be installed and you're good to go; using Shadowsocks means you need to sit down and read through the documentation and set up a server.

Depending on how you set it up, there's a chance that Shadowsocks might take a good whack out of your internet speed. Any rerouting technology will reduce your speed, but some are worse than others. A good server will reduce the pain, but generally speaking, using Shadowsocks means a much slower connection. Also, unlike VPNs, you can't use Shadowsocks to change your Netflix region or even to torrent files.

However, you could also argue that none of that matters: Shadowsocks was developed as a way to circumvent the blocks placed on free speech by a despotic regime and to do so for free. At that, it succeeds admirably and we recommend anybody looking to escape internet censorship at least look into it.

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