Who on the Internet can see your IP address, and what can they do with it?
Browsing the Internet is very similar to driving around with a car privacy wise. People see the license plate of the car which some can use to look up information about the owner of the car.
The IP address of a device works in a similar fashion, albeit not that much in the open.
Whenever programs such as web browsers connect to websites, one or multiple server connections are established by it in the background.
These connections download data from those servers, usually to display the website in the browser. This can be text, images and other media, scripts for advertisement or style information that tell the browser how to style the site.
Each connection reveals the device's IP address to the server it connects to, and in return, you get to see the IP address of the server as well.
The same is true for other types of Internet connections. A mail client like Thunderbird or Outlook connect to mail servers, a gaming platform like Steam to Steam servers and sometimes game servers, and file sharing clients to centralized servers and other users sharing files.
Basically, your IP address is revealed in every connection your device makes.
What can an IP address reveal about you?
Just like the license plate of a car, it does not necessarily reveal the driver but only the owner of the connection. If you connect from home, this may be you but it can as well be a sibling, your parents or room mates. On the go, it can be the owner of a shop for example.
The IP address reveals public information. It can be used to find out about the Internet Service Provider who has registered it, and also the region it is being used in. While that can mean your neighborhood, it cannot be used to reveal your home address usually.
Things are different for law enforcement requests. Providers do store additional information usually including date, time, IP addresses and customers who were assigned those addresses. IP addresses are often assigned dynamically which means that they change over time.
Tip: you can check your IP right now here on Ghacks.
If law enforcement or other legal authorities request information about an IP address, a link between the IP and you as a customer can be established.
- Your ISP: identify your home address and the owner of the account.
- Everyone else: only publicly available information including the ISP and region.
There are two main methods of protecting yourself on the Internet:
- Use an Internet connection that cannot be traced back to you. This can be a public WiFi in a coffee shop, airport or other location for example. While Internet servers cannot trace you back this way, there may still be ways to identify you. Cameras may record your activity for example, or you may be required to authenticate before you can use the Internet connection in a place.
- Use a proxy or VPN server. This puts a barrier between your own IP address and the Internet so that all connections see only the proxy or VPN IP and not your own. There are still ways to trace the connection back to you if the service you are using records information just like your ISP does. One way to make this difficult is to chain these type of connections.