What does an IP address tell you and how it can put you at risk
April 23, 2021
Cars have VINs. Humans have Social Security numbers. And our internet-connected devices have unique identifiers, too — Internet Protocol addresses, commonly known as IP addresses.
Similar to those other identifiers in our lives, an IP address does reveal a little bit about you, namely your geolocation.
Here, we’ll dig further into the meaning, purpose, and inner workings of an IP address to explain just what does an IP address tell you — and others.
What is an IP address?
An IP address is a string of numbers assigned to an internet-connected device, much like an address on a house. Your computer network uses the IP address to communicate with other computers, websites, and all parts of cyberspace.
Essentially, IP addresses are how computers on the internet recognize one another. Your internet service provider (ISP) assigns IP addresses to your internet-connected devices, and every IP address is unique. Considering every single internet-connected device has an IP address, billions of IP addresses exist.
You can think of an IP address like a membership card to enter the World Wide Web. Every device that can connect to the internet is a member of the World Wide Web — computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, routers, etc. — and all have an IP address. Websites and computer networks require that form of identification for you to interact with them.
Understanding an IP address and how it works aside, it’s also important to understand the purpose of IP addresses in the first place.
What is the purpose of an IP address?
An IP address can be considered a digital address for your internet-connected devices, as it reveals your geolocation to help the internet deliver content that’s relevant to you.
For example, it’s due in part to your IP address that you see local restaurants pop up when you search “sushi restaurants.”
How to find your IP address
To find your IP address, simply Google “what is my IP address.” It’s as simple as that: The internet provides your IP address back to you. The internet knows your IP address because it’s assigned to your device and it is required to browse the internet.
Worth mentioning is that your IP address changes every time you connect to a different Wi-Fi network or router. Online users won’t even know the difference and, generally, they don’t need to — much like how they don’t necessarily need to know how to read an IP address.
Rather, online users should be aware of what information their IP address reveals.
What information does my IP address reveal?
IP addresses do reveal your geolocation, but not your precise location like a home address and never your name, phone number, or other precise personal information. Instead, IP addresses might reveal your city, ZIP code, or area code of where you are connecting to the internet at that moment — this is why IP addresses change every time you connect from a new location or using a new router.
And it’s generally your router’s IP address that is revealed, not the IP address of your internet-connected devices such as a computer, tablet, or mobile phone that communicate with a router to connect to the internet. Sure, these internet-connected devices share their IP address with your router, but your router uses its own IP address to grant your device access to the World Wide Web.
It’s for this reason that your IP address almost always reveals the geolocation of your ISP’s nearest servers — not your physical location at all — and your IP address also reveals the name of your ISP.
Finally, to put your mind at ease, we have answers to a few common IP address FAQs regarding what information an IP address reveals about you:
- What does an IP address tell you? For the most part, an IP address tells you the city, ZIP code, or area code of your ISP, as well as your ISP’s name.
- What can an IP address tell you? To some degree, your physical location and also the name of your ISP.
- Can IP addresses reveal your identity? No, not outrightly. However, others can piece together bits of your identity, using your IP address and by following your online activity.
How others can find your IP address — and why they want to
For others to find your IP address, it is not as easy as searching “What is [insert name]’s IP address.” It takes a bit more legwork. But it’s also not as difficult as some might think, considering we leave our digital footprints and, in turn, IP addresses behind online with every click.
Remember, IP addresses are like your membership card to the internet and are required to enter any website and webpage on it. So, every time you click something online it’s like signing a guestbook and your IP address is the signature you leave behind. This includes social media sites, internet forums, chatrooms, and blogs you comment on. All of these platforms can view your IP address.
Also, cybercriminals can find your IP address by hacking into your home network or placing a bug in email HTML.
For a more straightforward approach to find your IP address, others might simply borrow your device and Google “what is my IP address” or inspect the header of an email address. There are also IP lookup services, whereby users can simply copy and paste an IP address into a search bar and discover a person’s geolocation.
Authorities, including, law enforcement or fraud investigators, can also use subpoenas to contact your ISP and get your IP address.
But, why would other people want to know your IP address and what would they do with it?
Is it dangerous for people to know your IP address?
Since an IP address doesn’t outrightly reveal your personal information or confidential data, it’s generally not dangerous for people to know your IP address — but it all depends on who’s trying to access it.
Consider the following parties who might be interested in your IP address and why:
- Authorities to piece together illegal activities
- Employers to understand where you’re spending time online at work
- Advertisers to target you with relevant products and services
- Blacklist databases to block access from spammers
- Retailers to cross-check your geolocation with your payment method’s mailing address
- Chatrooms to block inappropriate users
- Subscription services to block users from accessing content unavailable in their area or region
- Hackers to install malware on your devices
- Cybercriminals to put you at risk of Denial of Service attacks
- Criminals who, if they already know your personal information, might call your ISP and commit a vishing attack
- You might even want to use an IP address to confirm whether an online friend or virtual love interest resides where they say they do
As with most things in life, people’s intentions vary.
When it comes to others trying to find your IP address, some might have malicious intentions, such as to track you. Others, however, might be watching out for you, such as a well-intentioned bank confirming a transfer request is being submitted by you.
Finally, just because someone knows your IP address does not necessarily mean they will wind up on your doorstep. Still, you might want to take measures to protect your IP address.
How to protect your IP address
The simplest and most straightforward way to protect your IP address is to use a virtual private network (VPN) because this anonymizes your online activity using encryption. It also changes your IP address completely, placing your geolocation hundreds or maybe thousands of miles from where you actually are accessing the internet.
Talk about throwing someone off your digital tail.
The bottom line: IP addresses reveal geolocations and you can prevent this
No, IP addresses are not as sacred as our Social Security numbers, but it’s still worth understanding what an IP address reveals and also how to hide your IP address if you want to.
After all, being informed is a best practice when it comes to protecting our online privacy.
Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.
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