Want to find out what your public IP address is? At any given time you can easily check it using HostGator’s IP address tool, or one of a variety of other websites. Calling it a “public” IP address isn’t just talk—it really is easily accessible information.
On the one hand, it’s nice to know that it’s easy to learn your current IP address any time you need to know it. On the other, in an era with lots of online privacy issues, knowing your IP address is readily available to so many sources may be concerning. You may wonder who else can find this information, and what they can do with it.
If you’re worried about how IP address tracking works and what it means for you from a privacy perspective, we’ve collected all the most important details you need on the topic.
What is an IP Address?
To start, you need to know what an IP address is. IP stands for internet protocol, which is the set of processes that dictate how information is shared across the web. If you’ve ever wondered how one machine knows how to connect to another and what information to share with it, all internet-connected devices use the internet protocol for that. That, in a nutshell, is how IP addresses work.
Devices that use the internet are all programmed to follow the internet protocol so they know how to interact with each other and keep the internet functioning the way we need it to. For different machines and networks to effectively communicate with each other via the internet protocol, they need a way to identify one another. For that, each device has an IP address.
In most cases, IP addresses are a string of numbers separated by periods. If you used HostGator’s tool to learn what yours is, you probably saw an IP address that fits this description and looked something like: 126.96.36.199.
That’s your network’s address. Anytime you send an email or visit a website, that’s how the machines your network communicates with will see you. And that last part is what makes some people uncomfortable. What exactly do we mean when we say that other devices and networks can see you (or at least your IP)?
How Are IP Addresses Tracked?
Every time two devices connect to one another using the internet protocol, they have to acknowledge each other. In internet parlance, this is generally described as “shaking hands.” Your IP address needs to let the device at the other IP address know where to send the information that’s being requested. That hand shake is how IP addresses are tracked.
For example, when you’re trying to visit a website, your network sends out an information packet that includes your IP address and port number. Then the server that hosts the website you’re seeking accepts the packet, learns what network is asking for access, and knows where to send back its response in the form of all the files that make up the website.
That website and the server it’s on now know your IP address has visited. And your internet service provider (ISP) also has a record of that visit. In most cases, that’s where the tracking stops. A random person curious about your internet history won’t be able to find out what websites you’ve visited just based on knowing your IP address.
But ISPs keep a record of IP address activity, which means that, in rare cases, they can share that information with others. And while your IP address only provides limited information to the servers your network communicates with, it does give them some data about you.
3 Reasons to Track an IP Address
Why does anyone have to track your IP address to begin with? Why can’t you just browse the internet in peace with total privacy? For the most part, your IP address’s activity is your business alone, assuming no one’s looking over your shoulder or checking the browser history on your device.
But there are three main instances where that information will be used or accessed by a third party.
1. Legal Concerns
IP addresses are how we as a society identify people who commit illegal activities online in order to hold them accountable. This ranges from small offenses to large.
When someone downloads media or software illegally, the company that holds the copyright can find out and track the action to a particular IP address. They don’t know right away it’s you, but they can find out which ISP owns the address and send them a threat to pass along to you. Because your ISP has a record of which IP address was assigned to you at a given time and the activity tied to it, they’ll know who to blame for the offense.
IP addresses are also used in identifying the offenders behind spam and phishing emails. Email clients and email marketing software platforms keep a record of which email addresses look like spam based on the content of the email and subject line, as well as when recipients click on that “mark as spam” button. While they don’t have the power to find the individuals behind the email address, they can add the IP address it came from to a blacklist to keep the emails from that address from reaching people’s inboxes in the future.
While that’s a useful tactic to protect all of our inboxes from the thousands of spam emails that go out on a regular basis, it can have an unintended side effect. Because ISPs generally provide customers with dynamic IP addresses, meaning they change regularly over time, there’s always a risk that someone with a newly assigned IP address will be stuck with the consequences of the behavior of the guy who had it last week. It doesn’t happen often though, and it’s a problem easily fixed by changing your IP address.
And of course, there’s the occasional bigger criminal offense that triggers use of an IP address to identify someone. If a person sells or distributes something illegal online or talks about committing a crime on an online platform, law enforcement can demand their personal information from your ISP. Again, as with these other cases, a cop or lawyer won’t be able to tell just from your IP address who you are or where to find you. They’ll have to take the extra step of going through your ISP. But if someone’s suspected of a serious enough crime, ISPs are likely to cooperate and hand over that information.
It’s worth noting here that while tracking an IP address linked to illegal activity can eventually lead to someone learning the name and address of the person behind the computer, it’s not information your ISP will hand out lightly. Most internet service providers have strict privacy rules they abide by, so the average person asking for information is unlikely to be successful. But a law enforcement representative or copyright lawyer that comes equipped with evidence will be treated differently.
In some legal cases, an IP address can be tracked back to a specific individual. When it comes to marketing uses though, IP tracking is more anonymized than that. Marketing and analytics software includes the capability to track the location data of IP addresses and provide that data to website owners.
So when your IP address contacts a server to access a specific website, the website can track where the visitor is coming from. In real time, that information can be used to personalize the page you see. For example, when you visit the website of a national movie theater chain, often the page will automatically detect where you’re coming from and provide showtimes for the closest theater location.
In addition, that information will be saved and provided to the website owner through tools like Google Analytics. They won’t know your name and home address or anything like that, but they’ll be able to see that they got a website visitor from your city.
If you see ads for websites you’ve visited before following you around the web, that’s the result of cookies tracking your internet activity. While your IP address provides information about your location, it’s the cookies that provide websites and advertisers with more details about your specific online behaviors.
3. Scam Detection
Consumers aren’t the only ones who have to worry about online scammers. Many credit card companies and eCommerce businesses now use security software to help spot purchases that are likely fraudulent. If someone makes a large purchase, the software can flag it to be reviewed before it goes through. If the purchase is coming from a different location than where the credit card owner lives, they may check with the owner before processing it.
This is another case where IP address tracking won’t point anyone back to you as an individual, but can help companies learn valuable information about you based on location. The fact that IP addresses provide generalized location data (usually based on where your ISP is located) can help protect you, your credit card company, and the vendors you do business with from costly fraudulent purchases.
IP Address Information: What Can Someone Learn?
In most cases, the information someone can learn based on your IP address is limited. They can find out your city, your zip code (or one nearby), and the area code associated with the area. They can see what internet provider you use, and whether the IP address is on any blacklists.
In order to gain any more personal details than that, they would need to go through your ISP, which is only likely to provide your details if a lawyer or law enforcement agent provides them with evidence your IP address was linked to a crime. So most people don’t have to worry about their IP address leading any online strangers to your location.
How Can I Keep My IP Address from Being Tracked?
We’ve established that people generally won’t be able to find out personal details about you from your IP address beyond your general location. But if you’re uncomfortable with them even knowing that much about you, or if you don’t like the idea of your internet activity being traceable back to you, you have some options for shielding your IP address.
Invest in a VPN Service.
A virtual private network (VPN) is a paid service that will mask your IP address when browsing the web. It encrypts all your internet activity and shields sites from recognizing your geographic location. A VPN service comes in handy for anyone concerned about internet privacy, or those looking to get around geographic restrictions for accessing a website.
A VPN can ensure your personal data stays secure when you’re using public WiFi networks, such as at coffee shops or the airport. It can also keep your general geographic location hidden, if you’re worried about stalkers or just want that extra level of security when browsing on a search engine. And it can ensure you’re still able to watch your favorite show on Netflix, even when you’re traveling out of the country.
Use a free proxy server.
VPNs don’t come for free, so if you want some level of protection from IP website tracking, but don’t want to spend any money, another option is a proxy server. A proxy server obscures your IP address by using a middleman IP it shows up as instead. It’s not as secure as a VPN, since it doesn’t provide encryption for your data, but it does keep your IP address from being accessible to your average website user.
Set up Tor.
Tor is a free, open-source browser add-on that will bounce your internet connection off several different nodes each time you access a website to make your original IP address nearly impossible to trace. It’s not quite as secure as a VPN, as you’d expect from a free service, but it provides an extra level of encryption and anonymity.
IP Tracking (Usually) Won’t Hurt You
Privacy concerns in the internet era are absolutely real and valid. But IP tracking is fairly low on the list of things you should be worried about. The generalized geographic information people and websites can access via your IP address usually isn’t enough to do you any real harm. There are more important cybersecurity issues to keep an eye out for, such as whether the websites you visit use https—meaning they offer the proper encryption to keep your data safe— and knowing how to spot phishing emails.
Understanding how IP addresses work makes you a more informed internet user. But it’s one aspect of using the internet that shouldn’t keep you up at night.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.