You and your IP Address…

Well, my wife asked me to explain this to her, so I figured maybe some plain English would help others also.

The subject of internet protocol (IP) addresses has come up among some friends – due to someone claiming that they were able to track them down (confirm that they were the perps of an action online) based on their IP address. Rather than directly address that question, let me put it in broader terms so that internet citizens understand what is – and what IS NOT – probable or possible.

For a simple proof-of-concept, go to this site:
http://www.whatismyip.com/

If all is working well, you will see your public (current assigned) IP on that page – AND, a map with a location as close as humanly possible to your house. Does it pinpoint your town? Your neighborhood? Your block? Your house?

To answer the first basic question – can someone, outside of law enforcement or your cable/telecom company, trace your IP to your house?

The answer here is a BIG FAT NO. They cannot. You see, IP addresses are doled out on a temporary basis from your provider out of a big block which they own. They change – sometimes often – sometimes less often. BUT, these temporary addresses are NEVER assigned to a person or an address. That’s why we call them “temporary”. You simply borrow them.

So, where can these “temporary” (also called dynamic) IP addressed be traced to?

This depends. They often can be traced to a large telecom facility somewhere within a couple miles of your location. Perhaps it would be your town – perhaps not. My IP currently points to a town about 60 miles away, which is where my cable provided (Charter) has a large facility. At another location I frequent, my IP points to the next town over – about 12 miles away by road.

Are there any exceptions to this rule? My friend/brother/father/son is a hacker and claims he can do tricks to find out exactly where an IP comes from?

Short answer – NO. Unless your friends works inside the cable company office or has special advanced employee access to their records, they cannot map your IP address to your house.

Longer answer – some businesses have “fixed” IP addresses which they pay more for. They do this in order to provide services (like a web server or other services) from their own networks. Fixed IP numbers can often be traced to a COMPANY, but still not to a location or a person. For instance, an IP which is owned by Apple or Google may be in use in one of hundreds or thousands of their offices – and/or it may still not point to their facility, but to the “upstream” provider who assigned (sold) them the fixed IP address.

Even longer answer – Even law enforcement does not have direct access to who has a particular IP. This can only be looked up afterwards…..usually only with a specific type of serious request or court order to the cable or telecom company. IF you’d read a story about someone being tracked down for file sharing or a virus being unleashed, it was after MUCH investigation. In order to do so, law enforcement has to get the court order and provide the cable/telecom company with the IP and EXACT TIME AND DATE in question. This is because, as mentioned before, IP’s change. So the person who used this IP last month may be different than the one today…..or even different in one hour or one day!

How about my cell phone? How does that work with IP addresses?

Your cell phone runs on TWO different networks. It has a wireless connection which you may use when around your home….which ties it to your local wireless router. When you are doing this, your cell phone is exactly like your computer.

But it works differently when you are in the car and out and around. In these cases, it again receives a VERY temporary IP number…it likely gets a different one every couple minutes as you roam from tower to tower. So, again, unless your cell phone provider is in on the action, no one can find exactly where you are located.

Does every computer have a unique IP number?

NO WAY. In the case of most homes and offices and even small businesses (small hotels, etc.), the entire building has ONE public IP number and there could be dozens of devices showing on the internet as being from the same IP number. In theory – and sometimes in fact – hundreds or even thousands of devices could have the same IP number.

OK, I think I get it. Tell me, then, how does some of this super snooping I read about in the news happen?

Ah, I thought you were gonna hit me with that one! Well, it turns out that the IP number is only one part of the equation. As I mentioned, that could get law enforcement to your house or a stranger to your town or a 50 mile radius. But how can law enforcement track you down when you sent that virus from the local Starbucks?

Quick discussion. Firstly, every single phone and computer and internet connected device DOES have a unique number inside it! Yes! No one told you about this yet? Well, here it is. In fact, many devices, like your phone,likely have a NUMBER of unique ID numbers inside them. These go by various names – the most well known being a MAC address. Suffice it to say it is possible for the experts to trace these down in many ways.

Anything else of note?

YES, glad you asked. GPS is your enemy! Well, it’s like fire- it can be your friend or your enemy. Newer devices like your cell phone or android tablet often have GPS chips inside of them – that is how they know where you are located VERY CLOSELY. That’s how google maps can find you with almost pinpoint accuracy or how “friend finder” apps work.

BUT, in most cases you have given your phone or tablet express permission – often called “allow location services” to use GPS and cell tower triangulation (don’t ask!) to map you. In theory, no regular person, hacker or computer expert from the outside can see into this data to locate you.

Thanks for listening!

Craig

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