Identity theft reached new heights in 2017, especially in terms of non-credit card-based fraud. In response, public interest in information security has been growing slowly but surely, especially with regard to the threat of identity theft. Unfortunately, one major concept has gotten muddled somewhere down the line: the IP address.
If you were to go by the indications of news reports and TV shows, you’d probably think of an IP address as something of a digital signature that allows you to pick out a single person from the immense population of the internet. That much is more or less correct. You might, however, also think that with an IP address, you can dredge up a user’s personal details and pinpoint their location. That’s only sort of correct.
While an IP address is a useful thing to know, on its own, it’s an innocuous piece of information that’s more technical than personal. A proper understanding of it is important for online safety, so let’s take a closer look at what an IP address is and what it’s not.
IP Address at a Glance
An IP address is a code assigned to a device by an internet service provider (ISP), which identifies in when it uses internet protocol. It’s denoted as a set of numbers. Since websites and programs rely on an IP address to deliver information to a computer, it’s worth noting that getting an IP address is, in itself, easy—so do away with any misconceptions that IP addresses are jealously guarded secrets.
You can easily find your own IP address by using an online tool. Such tools could be used to identify other users’ addresses too, as long as you had access to their devices. Of course, some methods can determine an IP address remotely, which is what many websites do. For example, Wikipedia revisions list the IP addresses of their editors, while ecommerce sites store and examine IP addresses to guard against fraud. Simple email scripts can also be used to identify a recipient’s IP address.
Once you have an IP address, you can examine its properties with online lookup tools. If you were to go ahead and do so, you’d find a list of details returned to you. With a quick scan you’ll probably notice that there is a name, as well as a physical address—but you might also notice that they’re not yours (or those of whoever’s IP address you entered).
Most information listed on an IP address is related to the internet service provider (ISP). Thus, any listed location—the closest you’ll get to personal details—could be anywhere from a few blocks off the mark to as vague as “in the same country.” So while getting an IP address is easy, there’s not much to be done with it on its own.
What’s the Big Deal?
The issue surrounding IP addresses isn’t quite their value in and of themselves. After all, we’ve already demonstrated how little you get out of an IP address on its own. Rather, problem arise when IP addresses are linked to other information—they can be the key to puzzling out a person’s identity not just online, but offline as well.
As websites track IP addresses, it’s possible to effectively profile a person through the sites they visit. You could figure out when they usually browse the web, how much, for what topics and where. This is about more than simply eavesdropping, though that much is disturbing enough. It’s used most often to identify those suspected of online harassment or crime.
On the other hand, an IP address could be used to access the records attached to that address by the internet service provider (ISP) who provided it. This could yield all the data that a user submitted when opening their subscription, including name, address, number, and relevant details. It’s quite the find, but hard to come by. Without a subpoena, authorities can’t compel ID companies, who are otherwise charged with protecting customer privacy.
What You Can Do About It
While you can’t stop your device from having a readily-viewed IP address, you can make it more difficult for others to attach any information to your address, whether it’s browsing patterns or personal data. By using a virtual private network (VPN) service, you can conceal your ISP-provided IP address by using one provided by the VPN.
Furthermore, as long as you’re connected to a VPN server, all data your computer sends out or receives is encrypted, which keeps third parties from tracking your activity. This, combined with the fact that most VPN services let you regularly cycle or switch your IP address—with options for servers in various countries—makes it difficult for anyone to monitor you or pin down your online identity.
Of course, it’s not entirely without its downsides. VPNs are often used to circumvent regional restrictions, so some websites have technology in place to deter the use of VPNs. Similarly, if you use a VPN to avail yourself of an IP address in a region different from your home address, vendors and banks may suspect fraud. Take note of these before proceeding, so that you have a smooth, hassle-free VPN experience—while enjoying the benefits of increased privacy and a safeguarded online identity.
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