Nearly all of us have at least one IP address. Most of us have multiple. Some of us have had dozens, even hundreds. Yet we rarely stop to think about them. There are many reasons to learn more about these ubiquitous strings of numbers—especially when your privacy is involved.
Your IP address is a unique number identifying an internet-enabled device, such as a router, laptop, or smartphone, which helps deliver content and information from the internet to your device. It’s issued by your internet service provider, or ISP. IP addresses are the internet’s way of differentiating between the billions of devices it's connected to, from printers to refrigerators. Anything with an internet connection has an IP address.
Most home networks use the IP address of the router their ISP provided. A router is a device that receives and sends data between the internet and the devices in your home. When a device connects to your network, it sends out a broadcast message requesting an IP address. Your router then assigns an available IP address to your device. Note that IP addresses, including your router’s, can sometimes change, though usually not very often. This helps make sure there are enough IP addresses for every internet user.
Traditionally, IP addresses are a string of four numbers, separated by periods. Each of the four numbers is in the range 0 to 255. They look something like this:
The ‘IP’ in IP address stands for Internet Protocol, which is a set of rules dictating the format of data sent over the internet. Think of this as a kind of language. When people speak and understand the same language, they can talk to one another. Likewise, devices exchange information using a set of guidelines, or a protocol.
IP addresses are coordinated by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). The IANA assigns blocks of IP addresses to regional internet registries, which in turn assign smaller blocks to national and local registries. Smaller blocks of addresses are eventually assigned to internet service providers, who then assign specific IP addresses to individual devices.
Every device has its own IP address, but not every IP address is accessible to the public. Again, the IP address being shared with the internet is your router’s, not the IP address assigned to your device. Your router, like your front door, is your gateway to the world. This means you have both public and private IP addresses:
There are also different versions of IP addresses. The two main ones used today are IPv4 and IPv6, aka IP version 4 and IP version 6. Your internet service provider dictates the version of your IP address.
There are several advantages to the IPv6 format:
Adoption of IPv6 is steadily increasing, but as Google reports, only about 30-35% of users are currently connecting to the internet with an IPv6 address.
IP addresses are an essential part of all online activity. Data transmitted over the internet is divided into segments called packets. Among the data stored in a packet is the IP address of the origin device and the IP address of the destination device. These addresses ensure the data you request is sent to the right place. Without an IP address telling the data where to go, accessing the internet would be impossible, in the same way that sending or receiving mail is impossible without an address and a return address.
Whenever you use the internet to send an email, visit a website, or watch a movie on Netflix, you’re also sharing your IP address. When you type search terms into mainstream search engines, they collect data, like your IP address.
Like fingerprints, no two IP addresses are exactly alike, and like fingerprints, you leave behind traces of your IP address when you roam the internet. These numbers can tell a bit about who you are and what you do online, and can help lead anyone who finds them back to you.
Because IP addresses are assigned geographically, like phone number area codes, the main thing an IP address can tell you is your general geolocation.
If you’re curious about your public IP address you can go to a site like whatismyipaddress.com. It can give you a general idea of your geographic location, even the approximate latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of your router. (Try for yourself.) These tools show how easy it is for anyone to know the city—perhaps even the neighborhood—you sent an email from.
But what if someone isn’t willing to stop there? The more an onlooker peeks at the internet activity associated with an IP address, the more details they can uncover about the people accessing the internet from that address.
In 2013, a report from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) illuminated that IP addresses can be used to paint a picture of an individual's activities and interests, including:
The findings of the study also indicate what law enforcement could obtain from individuals without needing prior judicial authorization, such as a warrant.
Your online activity can reveal your IP address to attackers who can do a lot with just this fragment of access. Potential threats include:
Using a VPN is the best way to protect your IP address. A VPN, or virtual private network, masks your public IP address with one not tied to your internet service provider, and therefore not indicative of your location. A VPN reroutes your internet activity to a dedicated VPN server before connecting you to the internet. In other words, the internet doesn’t see your true IP address. Most good VPN services, like ExpressVPN or NordVPN, charge a small monthly fee.
Ready for a safer, more private search experience? Try Neeva, the world’s first private, ad-free search engine. We even show you additional information on sensitive search results like health and news, so you can have transparency into what websites you visit. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Try Neeva for yourself, at neeva.com.
Gary Nichols via U.S. Military
The nomenclature of the web is vast. But even though words become commonplace, people often don't know what they really mean.
But they should.
An IP address, for instance, is a ubiquitous part of the online experience, but few know what it is. And, even scarier, many don't know the kind of information IP addresses can reveal.
What is an IP address?
At its core, an IP address is an online unique identifier. Every computer has its own IP address, and it is through this naming system that computers can connect with each other and share data.
A standard IP address (using what's known as the IPv4 protocol) contains four individual numbers separated by a decimal.
While every computer is given its own IP address, the outside world rarely has access to it. Routers, instead, connect to individual computers, and it's the routers that then connect to the rest of the internet using their own individual IP address. Think of routers as the bridge between the network within your house (or business, library, coffee shop, etc.) and the outside world network (that is, the internet).
When you send an email or visit a website, the IP address being shared is that of your local router — provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) — and not the individual address assigned to your computer. All the same, whether someone knows the address of your computer or your network, these numbers are able to tell a bit about who you are and what kind of sites you surf.
What sort of personal information is shared with an IP address?
This most personal kind of information that can be shared in IP address itself is geolocation. But the good news is, because you are connected to a network and it's the network's IP address being shared, your precise location is not shared.
For instance, you may send an email from your home, and someone may be able to know the city from which it was sent, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to access any other granular information about you.
Instead they'll probably see the information of your ISP. While this may give geolocation data about the general area of your router, it will not give a street address.
But there's a catch...
Alone, the IP address can't share much more about you than a generalized location of where you might be at a certain time.
The trouble is, onlookers can in some cases look at the online activity associated with a particular IP address. Then, they can stitch together a lot of information about the people or even a single person who's accessing the internet from that address.
The Canadian Privacy Commissioner’s Office (OPC) set out to see what sort of information it could dig up using the IP address of its own network. From there the researchers used a search engine to find details about the people who had used the internet via that network.
Here are some of the sites and services the people using the OPC IP address visited:
The OPC also did a second experiment where it looked up the IP address of a person that had edited a Wikipedia entry (these IP addresses are public), then entered that IP address into a search engine. It got all kinds of information back, such as all the other entries that person had edited, and the fact that the person had visited an online message board related to sexual preferences.
The report explained that using these tactics it was not hard to get a "glimpse into the kind of portrait that authorities could be able to paint of individuals without needing to obtain prior judicial authorization."
In other words, an employer can figure out a lot about the people who are using the internet from work. Or, in theory, your ISP could figure out a lot about the activities of its subscribers. Or, an online advertising network could associate a particular IP address with a lot of online activity over time and use that to target advertising.
What is the worst case scenario?
With the help of the authorities, it is possible to discover more than just hearsay information. For instance, the OPC cites a case in the US where the authorities, knowing only the IP address, contacted the ISP and were able to find the identity of a person sending harassing emails.
They did this by receiving the exact locations where the emails were sent from the ISP. Many of these places were hotels, and the FBI was able to find one common name on all of the hotels’ guest lists. Then, the FBI got a warrant to investigate that person's email account.
This does require a certain set of knowhow. While it's relatively easy to find out an IP address (you can look up your own by going to websites like IP Chicken), finding real actionable information from it takes some finesse.
But once you have that finesse, with a little bit of imagination, some creepy details may be discovered.