What is an IP address and what can it reveal about you?
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. For example, Business Insider’s IP address as of now is 126.96.36.199.
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:
Legal advice related to insurance law and personal injury litigation
A specific religious group
Online photo sharing
The revision history of a Wikipedia entry