Nearly all of us have at least one IP address. Most of us have multiple. Some of us have had dozens, even hundreds. Yet we rarely stop to think about them. There are many reasons to learn more about these ubiquitous strings of numbers—especially when your privacy is involved.
What is an IP address?
Your IP address is a unique number identifying an internet-enabled device, such as a router, laptop, or smartphone, which helps deliver content and information from the internet to your device. It’s issued by your internet service provider, or ISP. IP addresses are the internet’s way of differentiating between the billions of devices it's connected to, from printers to refrigerators. Anything with an internet connection has an IP address.
Most home networks use the IP address of the router their ISP provided. A router is a device that receives and sends data between the internet and the devices in your home. When a device connects to your network, it sends out a broadcast message requesting an IP address. Your router then assigns an available IP address to your device. Note that IP addresses, including your router’s, can sometimes change, though usually not very often. This helps make sure there are enough IP addresses for every internet user.
Traditionally, IP addresses are a string of four numbers, separated by periods. Each of the four numbers is in the range 0 to 255. They look something like this:
The ‘IP’ in IP address stands for Internet Protocol, which is a set of rules dictating the format of data sent over the internet. Think of this as a kind of language. When people speak and understand the same language, they can talk to one another. Likewise, devices exchange information using a set of guidelines, or a protocol.
IP addresses are coordinated by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). The IANA assigns blocks of IP addresses to regional internet registries, which in turn assign smaller blocks to national and local registries. Smaller blocks of addresses are eventually assigned to internet service providers, who then assign specific IP addresses to individual devices.
Types of IP addresses
Every device has its own IP address, but not every IP address is accessible to the public. Again, the IP address being shared with the internet is your router’s, not the IP address assigned to your device. Your router, like your front door, is your gateway to the world. This means you have both public and private IP addresses:
- A public IP address (aka an external or global IP address) is provided by your internet service provider and is used to communicate between your devices and the internet. This is your router’s IP address and the primary address associated with your home network. As the name suggests, others have access to it. Devices outside your internet network use your public IP address to recognize your network. Want to know your public IP address? Visit whatismyip.com
- Every device connected to your internet network has a private IP address (aka your local or internal IP address). These addresses are not directly visible to the public internet, work only within your private network, and can’t be seen from outside. Private IP addresses allow your router to identify each device separately, and let your devices recognize one another within your home network.
There are also different versions of IP addresses. The two main ones used today are IPv4 and IPv6, aka IP version 4 and IP version 6. Your internet service provider dictates the version of your IP address.
- IPv4 is the version we’ve been talking about. It was developed in the early 1980s and remains the most common version of IP address. The problem is we’re running out of possible IPv4 addresses. The format allows only 4.3 billion potential addresses. That might have seemed like a lot in the early days of the internet, but a lot can change in forty years. A study from Juniper Research estimates the total number devices connected to the internet will reach 83 billion by 2024, up from 35 billion in 2020.
- In comes IPv6, a newer, longer IP format. In 1999, with the increasing commercialization of the internet, people began to worry the IANA would run out of IP addresses. So, the Internet Engineering Task Force came up with a version that would allow for far more address configurations. IPv6 addresses are written in a 128-bit hexadecimal format, with numbers and letters separated by colons. They look something like this:
There are several advantages to the IPv6 format:
- It allows for some 340 undecillion—340 trillion trillion trillion—addresses for every person on the planet.
- Every device gets its own unique IP address, not one based on the router’s address, allowing data to move more efficiently by making addresses directly accessible to one another. It’s like having your own unique phone number rather than having your calls forwarded to a phone extension.
- It allows for more data per transfer, and can prioritize which bits of data should go first when your connection is slow.
Adoption of IPv6 is steadily increasing, but as Google reports, only about 30-35% of users are currently connecting to the internet with an IPv6 address.
Why do you need an IP address?
IP addresses are an essential part of all online activity. Data transmitted over the internet is divided into segments called packets. Among the data stored in a packet is the IP address of the origin device and the IP address of the destination device. These addresses ensure the data you request is sent to the right place. Without an IP address telling the data where to go, accessing the internet would be impossible, in the same way that sending or receiving mail is impossible without an address and a return address.
What can an IP address tell you?
Whenever you use the internet to send an email, visit a website, or watch a movie on Netflix, you’re also sharing your IP address. When you type search terms into mainstream search engines, they collect data, like your IP address.
Like fingerprints, no two IP addresses are exactly alike, and like fingerprints, you leave behind traces of your IP address when you roam the internet. These numbers can tell a bit about who you are and what you do online, and can help lead anyone who finds them back to you.
Because IP addresses are assigned geographically, like phone number area codes, the main thing an IP address can tell you is your general geolocation.
If you’re curious about your public IP address you can go to a site like whatismyipaddress.com. It can give you a general idea of your geographic location, even the approximate latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of your router. (Try for yourself.) These tools show how easy it is for anyone to know the city—perhaps even the neighborhood—you sent an email from.
But what if someone isn’t willing to stop there? The more an onlooker peeks at the internet activity associated with an IP address, the more details they can uncover about the people accessing the internet from that address.
In 2013, a report from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) illuminated that IP addresses can be used to paint a picture of an individual's activities and interests, including:
- Online services for which they have registered.
- Personal interests, based on websites visited.
- Organizational affiliations.
- Locations they have visited physically.
The findings of the study also indicate what law enforcement could obtain from individuals without needing prior judicial authorization, such as a warrant.
Two common IP address security threats
Your online activity can reveal your IP address to attackers who can do a lot with just this fragment of access. Potential threats include:
- Tracking your location. As mentioned, your IP address can reveal your general location. This can then be cross-referenced with other data, such as your social media profiles, to gain more information about you.
- Hacking into a device. A hacker who knows your IP address could attempt to force a connection to your device. Once they have access, they can obtain personal information, install malware, or impersonate you.
How to protect your IP address with a VPN
Using a VPN is the best way to protect your IP address. A VPN, or virtual private network, masks your public IP address with one not tied to your internet service provider, and therefore not indicative of your location. A VPN reroutes your internet activity to a dedicated VPN server before connecting you to the internet. In other words, the internet doesn’t see your true IP address. Most good VPN services, like ExpressVPN or NordVPN, charge a small monthly fee.
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