Does Email or IP Address Reveal my Physical Location?

Category: Privacy

A reader asks: 'Can someone track a user (name, home address, etc.) simply by having their email or IP address? I'm asking because I posted to an online forum, and both my email and IP address were displayed publicly. Does that give others the ability to find my actual geographic location? Can I be tracked down in any way?' Read on to learn the answer to this common question...

Are You Invisible Online?

It's true that your IP address is no secret. It's a basic part of internet communication protocols to send your IP address whenever you connect to a website, send an email, make a forum/blog post, chat, play an online game, etc. Without your IP address, the computer on the other end wouldn't know where to send the reply.

But that doesn't mean that Evildoers can find your house if they know your IP address. Knowing your IP address does NOT give anyone the power to hack into your computer, NOR does it reveal who you are. Typically, each time you go online (if you have dialup) or each time you start your computer (if you have cable, fiber or dsl) you will be assigned an IP address, randomly selected from a pool of IP's assigned to your Internet service provider (ISP).

Finding the Physical Address for an IP Address

Does IP Address reveal location?

A person MIGHT be able to get a general idea of your geographic location, based on your IP address, by doing a lookup using a free Geo-IP database, but that will only tell them the physical location of your ISP -- not YOUR home address. (Keep in mind that when you're at work, your ISP might be your employer.)

If you use a large regional or nationwide ISP, the IP lookup probably reveals nothing of interest (probably just the location of your ISP's local switching facility). The IP address for most dialup users will be the location of the ISP's central office. For AOL subscribers, your IP address lookup will always show the location as Dulles, Virginia -- regardless of where you live. And if you're connecting to a public wifi hotspot in an airport, library or coffee shop, the IP address will be associated with the wireless service provider - not you at all.

Bottom line: The address returned by an IP lookup *could* be within a few miles of your home, or it could be wrong by several orders of magnitude.

When The Law Comes A Knockin'

Of course there is an exception to every rule. If Joe or Jane User calls your ISP and wants to know who was using a certain IP address last Tuesday, the ISP will tell them to go away. But if an officer of the law hands your ISP a court order to reveal that information, they must do so. Your ISP's logs will enable them to determine which customer was using a certain IP address on a certain date and time, and they must reveal that information if a court has found probable cause that a crime was committed by that person.

For the truly paranoid (or the criminally inclined) there are ways to surf the web anonymously. The Anonymizer service will act as a proxy between you and your ISP, and they claim that your information cannot be subpoenaed because they do not store it. See I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me and Personal VPNs for Anonymous Web Surfing for more information about anonymous web browsing options.

What About Email Addresses?

The same concepts apply to your email address. The part that follows the "@" sign is your ISP's domain name. And given the domain name, one can determine the ISP's physical location, but nothing personally identifying about the email user without a court order. Of course, if your email address is something like Jsmith90210, then you're leaving little to the imagination of a determined hacker or stalker.

Web-based email accounts are not truly anonymous, either. Even if you don't provide your real name when signing up, they can capture your IP address and track you through your ISP if necessary. But again, a court order would be needed.

Other Considerations

It's much more likely that you or your children will reveal your physical location the old fashioned way -- by just blurting it out. Kids who chat or play online games should be reminded often that they should never reveal any personal information, including their last name, phone number or home address. And of course, when you make an online purchase, you're explicitly providing your home address to the merchant.

Oh, and if you have any spyware or viruses on your system, all bets are off. These things are designed to violate your privacy. If you need help with scanning your system for spyware, adware and other unwanted pests, see my article on free anti-virus software for details on how to protect yourself from those risks.

 
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Posted by on 6 Nov 2013


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Most recent comments on "Does Email or IP Address Reveal my Physical Location?"

Posted by:

Charley
06 Nov 2013

Well in my case, my IP address (which has been static with comcast for years) seems to identify that I live in Los Altos.

I have enough stuff on the net over the years that my a Google search on my email address identifies my name. And then some searching on my name gets my address and phone number.

So while for most people, IP address wouldn't get you anything and email wouldn't find you, it's not always the case.


Posted by:

Mark
06 Nov 2013

Yes and no.

Yes, most people use a DHCP assigned address from their ISP, which by definition is dynamic, but in reality most don't change often. I log mine from a cable ISP and mine hasn't changed for years. There are also look-ups for those IP's which in some cases just get you in the right region, but in others are surprisingly accurate.

The fact is that unless you're an internet noob/have always used an alias and have never had your name/address in a phone book there is probably enough information out there that someone resourceful can get way more information about you than most people think, not only address and phone number, but things like tax records, property information, court/legal proceeding information/records/dispositions...


Posted by:

Doug J
06 Nov 2013

Bob, When I tried the Anonymizer, the following appeared on my screen: "This domain is blocked. Oops! We have beefed up our security to make sure you have a faster and safer Internet experience. www.anonymizer.com is not allowed on this network."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sounds like a local policy, perhaps your employer doesn't want you surfing outside the bounds they've set up?


Posted by:

RichF
06 Nov 2013

Thanks to Snowden we already know that an officer of the law with a subpoena isn't needed by the government anymore. Oops, is government watching what I'm typing? Probably shouldn't try to fly now - they probably read this and now I'm on a no fly list.


Posted by:

Jon
06 Nov 2013

For fun I downloaded the Pirate Bay version of firefox to see what it does.

It connects through something called the TOR network which has been in the news lately..... on about page 56.... if you read that far.

I was a bit shocked and felt quite annoyed when I discovered that according to a few mainstream journalists the network was a tool of 'sex fiends' and 'terrorists'.

I think that it's the usual propaganda from the lunatic fringe but haven't used it.

There again I do have an anonymizing thingie on the server which I've never bothered to set up either.

I've never been that worried about my IP address - all the sites that quote 'to you in' are wrong usually by 10 miles or so..... very odd.

BTW - I live in Cardiff (the Capital city of Wales) and the IP usually traces to Barry a small town 10 miles distant.... go figure?

It's a weird world!

Jon


Posted by:

Tony
06 Nov 2013

Yet another helpful informative and relatively concise article Bob. If you keep this up I'll need to consider nominating you for an Order of Australia but um I think you've go to be an Aussie citizen to get one. Maybe one of your American fans could nominate you for a similar US honour?


Posted by:

Dennis
06 Nov 2013

As usual...very informative. Thanks for keeping us abreast of the abuse of powers that be. Absolutely nothing is secure. I think we all know that by now.


Posted by:

Nat
07 Nov 2013

I googled my personal email address and I found my cell phone number, my home address and my business website with a business address with a business phone. One of the alternative addresses that I provided when I registered my domains and my website is my personal email address with Comcast. That is a reality that is no privacy anymore. Internet stores as Amazon and eBay even know who you are corresponding with. Perhaps they have an access to my mailbox that on their file. Is there some law and regulation to protect our privacy? Is there the way to complain on this kind open practice to spy on us?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Whoa, there! You say "Internet stores as Amazon and eBay even know who you are corresponding with. Perhaps they have access to my mailbox." Where did you hear this? Sounds completely bogus to me.


Posted by:

Old Man
07 Nov 2013

It appears people are confused between what can be learned from an IP or e-mail address and what is available on the Internet.
What Bob says about the IP and/or e-mail addresses is correct. They only lead to the ISP's service. I've seen many complaints on other sites that people can't get their actual location correct on their computers. That's because location programs use the IP address, not the physical address.
On the other hand, every time a person signs up for a newsletter, makes an online purchase, enters a contest, takes a survey, and a multitude of other online activities, he/she provides his/her name, address, phone number, e-mail address, and a lot of other personal information. That's where people-search companies, advertisers and spammers get their information on an individual; not from the IP address or e-mail domain.


Posted by:

D.S. Rama Prasad Dubey
07 Nov 2013

Please inform me which free e-mail service will give me details of sender's IP and geo-location when I receive all of a sudden a mail from unknown sources?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Some webmail services (GMail) do not preserve the sender's IP address. Yahoo does. This may help: http://aruljohn.com/info/howtofindipaddress/


Posted by:

brian
07 Nov 2013

Privacy is alive and well but it protects your ISP and not its users. See, http://www.wispa.org/calea/WCS

The following is cut and pasted, "If you wonder where privacy appears in this document, here it is: 1) the ISP is not allowed to tell you that you are being snooped on (enforcing the privacy of law enforcement); 2) if multiple law enforcement agencies want to read your e-mails or listen to your VoIP calls (both are specifically covered) the ISP is required to not tell any of those law enforcement agencies about the others, and 3: there is no three. Customer privacy is never mentioned in the document."


Posted by:

Narada
14 Nov 2013

Using the Electronic Frontier Foundation free test (https://panopticlick.eff.org/) you will likely find as I did, that your computer is uniquely identifiable from system data transmitted to every site you visit, including the particular fonts, and their order, that your browser will render. My computer was completely unique among over 3 million tested. More sites and companies are using this data, as people become more cookie-aware. So, handling IP address and cookie issues is insufficient for privacy concerns. More info in this 3 yr. old article: http://www.pcworld.com/article/192648/browser_fingerprints.html


Posted by:

nancy H
19 May 2014

Hi,
I am trying to locate a guy who I chat with for over one year...he does not show himself online but he sent me pictures of himself and he promises me that he will come and see me...I am frustrated and looking a way to find out more about him. he gave me email address which I could pull more pictures of Google image and he was surprised how I found his old picture...but when I sent him emails it bounced and he said he dosent know why he said...is there anyway I could figure out and find out where he lives and what he does? I know it sounds naive but I just like to find out ....please advise...


Posted by:

Rochelle
22 May 2014

Nancy H--try Facebook to find him, but I doubt he'll have his address and profession listed. If he is clueless enough to post those on FB, I would lose interest in him very fast.


Posted by:

maja82
26 May 2014

hey nancy!
I have too same story like you, some man write to me by more than half years and he never show himself just send me picture. he say that he live in nyc, and have divorse..


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