A growing concern among internet users, especially as banking and other private transactions and interactions increase, involves security. Associated with online security concerns are concerns of being able to be located, tracked and harmed by individuals, organizations or governments.
These concerns raise a very important question:
Can you be tracked down just by your IP address?
To answer this question, we’ll take a quick look at what an IP address is, the danger of your IP address being exposed and whether or not your IP address can lead an individual, organization or government entity directly to your door.
What is an IP address?
In short, IP stands for internet protocol and is part of the internet protocol suite typically labeled as TCP/IP, which includes a series of layered protocols used in the process of allowing your computer to communicate with other computers in a local network or the internet. There are two separate tasks performed by this stack of network files.
• Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). This part of the stack breaks down and reassembles packages of data sent from one computer and received by another.
• Internet Protocol is the process utilized to deliver those packages from one computer to another. It is like a mail or parcel carrier.
Like with common parcel or mail delivery, an address is required in order for the carrier to know where to deliver the package. An IP address is a unique identifying code associated with your computer which serves as the digital locator so that the IP carrier can deliver the packages to your computer.
Once the packages arrive in your computer TCP reassembles the packages into an order that makes sense to the receiver.
What are the potential dangers of your IP address being exposed?
Though you might feel like someone wearing a tinfoil hat for even exploring the possibilities, the potential does exist for stalkers, cybercriminals, hackers and governments to track and spy on individuals.
Because an IP address is attached to a specific computer, identifying where that computer is at any given time potentially exists as well. What sort of potential dangers might be involved with the ability for someone to track your IP address? Here are just a few:
• Hackers being able to locate your computer and private data to install spyware or malware disrupting the function of your computer. Some viruses make use of this means of entrance into your computer once they are invited in through viewing an attachment or clicking on a link.
• Cybercriminals have the potential of accessing private information on your computer related to banking or investment. In addition, a cybercriminal could steal proprietary information from a company or individual and copyright or trademark that information ahead of the legitimate originator.
• Stalkers, whether individuals or criminal organizations have the potential of following an IP address and being able to physically threaten or harm the individual who owns or uses the computer they tracked.
• Governments could also use an IP address to keep track of individual citizens they deem harmful to the public good as well.IP address can both provide location information for malignant purposes as well as mask criminal activity, which makes it difficult to track down the perpetrator.
This is possible because IP address mapping is performed at the ISP level and the IP header does not contain any specific personal information. An IP address can be tracked to a device, but not a specific individual. This creates the potential doubt as to the actual identity of the person using a specific device.
Forrester security and risk analyst John Kindervag notes that “Attackers always spoof their IP address, sometimes by using someone else’s network and sometimes by going through a proxy server located in some other country. The attacker could live next door, but make his/her traffic look like it came from Eastern Europe.”
Why is your IP address not protected as private information?
Your IP address is not protected as private information due to two court rulings that prevent IP addresses from being protected under U.S. privacy laws:
• A 2009 U.S. District Court ruling in the Western District of Washington declared that IP addresses do not constitute private identifiable information.
• In an Illinois Central District Court case in 2011 it was declared that an IP address does not qualify as personal information because it does not accurately identify a specific user.The problem when it comes to protection under privacy laws is that the specific IP address information cannot identify a particular individual. It becomes a threat when it is combined with other information like a username or specific browsing habits or internet activities.
Can you be tracked down by your IP address?
We have shown that the various potential threats that exist, that they are very real and that protecting your from these threats is outside the scope of legal privacy protection, but we still need to answer the basic question of whether or not it can be done.
It’s not simple, but it can be done. Email providers have been known to leak IP addresses to advertisers, market researchers and other agencies and emails in email lists are indexed by Google. Andrew Lee, CEO of London Trust Media, Inc. states that,
“Extreme tracking sites link IPs to Google searches and make them public. And business websites including, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.”
Specifically speaking, you are not specifically tracked by your IP address, which is the reason your privacy is not protected. When tracking an IP address the tracker does not know who is using the IP address, only where your device is potentially located within a certain radius of your IPS. So, there is some guesswork involved in zeroing in on your exact location.
You can track your own IP address using IP Location to see how accurate online tracking programs are.
Your various activities in relationship to connections with WiFi hotspots using your device allow a potential threat to narrow your location further. Piecing together the information gained along with other information you reveal in online profiles, your threat level rises.
Government Entities and Law Enforcement
This is where the real threat of being tracked via your IP address lies. In the event that you are engaged in illegal activity, law enforcement or other government agencies can subpoena an ISP to provide the name and address of an online account holder to which a specific IP address is connected. In most cases, those who are using the internet in an honest above board manner have little to worry about.
Essentially, you cannot be tracked down just by your IP address. The potential risk and threat are there because an individual or organization can piece together all of the fragments of information in your public profiles along with the various locations where you connect to public WiFi hotspots with your device. Your best security is to utilize safe online habits that give very little information about your identity in public profiles, messenger and chat apps.