Does My Email or IP Address Reveal my Physical Location?

Category: Privacy

A concerned reader asks: 'Can someone find a user's identity (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. Think of it as the return address on an envelope.

But that doesn't mean that Evildoers can find your home address 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 or where 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

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 Internet Service Provider -- not YOUR home address. Keep in mind that when you're at work, your ISP might be your employer. (One easy way to find your current IP address is with the IP Chicken website.)

does ip address reveal location

If you use a large regional or nationwide ISP, the IP lookup probably reveals nothing of interest -- either the location of your ISP's local switching facility, or a placeholder address that corresponds to the center of the town where you live. 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 Will a VPN Make You Safer Online? 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 the domain name. This can be your ISP, your employer, a webmail provider, or an email forwarding service. Given the domain name, one can determine the owner'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@acme-widgets.com, 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 malware and other unwanted pests, see my article on free anti-virus software for details on how to protect yourself from those risks.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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

Posted by:

Al
12 Jun 2017

When I did put my profile in certain date sites, and received emails from certain people, I would check their IP to make sure that they were living where they said they were living, and that helped me a lot to separate wolves from sheep. Only with gmail that didn't work. Gmail doesn't give the IP in a city other than their general one...


Posted by:

Ken
12 Jun 2017

All very interesting again Bob, as always


Posted by:

Misterfish
12 Jun 2017

Another interesting article, thank you Bob.
T'other day I was using Firefox to book an hotel on hotels.com when I was called away before confirming the booking. When I returned to my computer (WIN 10 alas) I found a message on my Facebook account reminding me to book before the rooms sold out.
Odd, because I had not given a Facebook reference to hotels.com - and in any event I was booking under my wife's name and Hotels.com account.
Someone out there is most definitely peering into my computer and watching what I am doing - how can this be and how can I "draw the curtains" on my computer??


Posted by:

Peter B
12 Jun 2017

You need to be aware that for customers using broadband (so many internet users), it is very likely that they will be using the same IP address for an extended period of time - likely months. In this case it could be possible to link the posts with other activities on the Internet.

Similarly, an internet search on your email address, and possibly your suggested name (J Smith in Bob's example) may allow people to link you to other information that may give away more details about you.

You'd have to be somewhat paranoid to worry about this. But I prefer the way Bob works - only publishing a user name - as publishing an email address opens you up to more spam coming.


Posted by:

Charley
12 Jun 2017

While your email address doesn't directly identify you, lots of companies (intellius, spokeo, pipl, etc.) scour public information and the Internet and may be able to identify you from your email address. And anything your publicly post may contain information that others can see possibly including your name, email address, etc. And since you give your email address together with your name, address, etc. whenever you do online shopping, any hacks of the sites you use (and there have been many of them e.g. Adobe, LinkedIn, Traget, etc.) can potentially reveal your information and may allow people to find you via your email address.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, you said more clearly what I was trying to explain in the last section of the article. In some cases, there are ways to connect the dots. It all depends on the trail of breadcrumbs you have left, and the extent to which trusted parties protect that information.


Posted by:

Russ
12 Jun 2017

I article Bob posted about confidentiality of location when using internet. This was great topic and info was really eye opening to a novice like me. I got a lot from reading it. Thank you


Posted by:

john
12 Jun 2017

Take a any device without cell service, or turn turn off cell radio. Connect WiFi. Load Google Maps. Google knows your precise address.

EDITOR'S NOTE: That doesn't concern me. I've not seen any evidence in the almost 20 years that I've used Google services, that they've sold any of my personally identifying information to a third party.


Posted by:

James Thornton
12 Jun 2017

I responded to Publishing Clearing House's E-Mails for several months and lo and behold my E-mail box was flooded with all kinds of E-mails They undoubtedly sold my E-mail address to hundreds if not thousands of other companies. I stopped responding and many of those e-mails went away.
James


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
12 Jun 2017

@John - when using Google Maps - I believe your GPS is open and working to see the maps. Your GPS will almost always start from your home address or where ever your are at - So that you can get to where you want to go.

Turn off your GPS and I think you will see a difference. In fact, Google Maps may not work as well - Since, you will need to type in the information of where you are at.

I'm like Bob - I don't worry about Google services. It's the other services on the Internet that I am more concerned about. }:O)


Posted by:

bb
13 Jun 2017

@John - Additionally, the strength and direction of cell phone towers give a good indication on where you are.

And ... When the Google street view cars went through they also mapped Wifi signals. Location by Wifi is a known technology.


Posted by:

Bruce
13 Jun 2017

http://www.newsweek.com/2017/06/16/big-data-mines-personal-info-manipulate-voters-623131.html

Seems to indicate that it is possible and was done by the people behind Breitbart and Trump.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ironic, because pundits claimed that the Obama campaign similarly used big data and social media targeting to defeat Romney in 2012. But at the time, it was seen as smart and savvy.


Posted by:

Wilf Comeau
18 Jun 2017

Another good article people. Every one has brought out some very good personal points, but if we are going to live with this fear, should we even be on the www. I'm sure the Gov. knows my address, as do my creditors and friends, if I should be afraid of anybody else finding out, then they better not bring a knife to a gunfight. I refuse to live in fear.


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