It’s no secret that China has one of the most draconian surveillance on the planet. The Chinese government exercises strict regulations and censorship in the interest of national security. Freedom of speech is controlled through strict policies, and the digital space is heavily monitored. Too many mainstream platforms have been banned in China. You cannot access YouTube, Wikipedia, Bloomberg, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram in the country. The services that do operate have to abide by the government’s policies.
The strict environment in the country has spawned homegrown apps and services. Instead of WhatsApp, China has WeChat. Instead of Google Search, China has Baidu. Instead of Google Pay, China has AliPay. Although the netizens of China have adopted the alternatives, a large number of people want to access the greater internet. As you’ll continue to read, the reason why Shadowsocks exist will become clear.
What is SOCKS5
To understand Shadowsocks, you need to know what SOCKS5 proxy is and how it overcomes the regular proxies.
A proxy server serves as a middleman for your data. Think of it as a forwarding company that takes the package from you and delivers it to the destination. Proxy servers mask your real IP address. So if you visit any website, it will read the proxy server’s IP address instead of yours, thus allowing you to bypass restrictions online. If a particular website can be accessed only from specific locations, then a proxy will bypass that filter and let you access instantly.
But a proxy is not as robust as a VPN. For starters, the lack of encryption means that data will be unprotected against third-party, such as your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or a hacker. Although HTTPS provides encryption, it’s not guaranteed considering not every website today has adopted HTTPS, or the HTTPS certificate may be expired. Moreover, proxies don’t provide a number of useful features that have become a norm in the VPN space.
Proxies only work with HTTP traffic, but the SOCKS5 protocol covers all kinds of traffic. It’s able to handle the traffic operating outside the web browser. It combines the fast speeds of a proxy server with the system-wide traffic handling of a VPN.
Shadowsocks takes it Up a Notch
Shadowsocks is based on SOCKS5 proxy. It was developed by a Chinese developer in 2012 to bypass the Great Wall of China. Not much is known about the person except his profile on Github by the name of “Clowwindy.” Github is a programmer’s repository for code. Coders around the world share and make use of each other work. And it is from where Shadowsocks emerged.
What makes Shadowsocks different is encryption, which the HTTP proxies do not possess. You might think to yourself that hey, that’s basically a VPN! – not quite. Firstly, VPN works on a lower level than SOCKS5. Secondly, Shadowsocks – or SOCKS5 – can be configured on a system as per requirements, and doesn’t work on more commonly used internet protocols that VPNs use.
It allows SOCKS5 connections to bypass the Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) techniques deployed by governments through ISPs to monitor internet traffic. The destination IP address can be matched against known IP addresses of VPN services.
Even encrypted data can be analyzed for matching patterns used by popular VPN protocols. In Ancient Rome, Julius Caesar used an encryption technique known as the Caesar Encryption now. Encryption relies on a key that is mathematically derived. In Caesar Encryption, the key is any number between 1 and 26. Now, all 26 alphabets of the English language will shift by three alphabets to the right.
Normal: A B C D E F G H I G K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Cipher: X Y Z A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W
So, to encrypt a message, you would take every letter of the message and substitute it with the corresponding letter in the normal > cipher conversion table above.
Should You Use a VPN or Shadowsocks?
Shadowsocks is primarily popular in China. Using such solutions is suitable for countries where internet policing is observed strictly. DPI can be avoided by using a protocol that is not so common. Some VPN servers offer what’s called obfuscation. These special servers run on OpenVPN protocol but rely on a different encryption protocol; hence they evade the DPI. But obfuscation is something that’s featured only in a few VPN services, such as NordVPN.
But perhaps the most prominent thing is Shadowsock’s lightweight nature, which makes it faster and suitable for streaming digital services. There are not even a couple of Shadowsocks proxy services, so that may place it outside of the convenience of most people.
As I said, Shadowsocks may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Part of that reason is China’s crackdown on the original developers of Shadowsocks. But since it is open-source, anyone can pick it up and build their flavors. It’s a bunch of programmers who are keeping Shadowsocks alive right now. And the services right now have all built it on the original code released by Clowwindy.