Does My Email or IP Address Expose my Physical Location?
A reader asks: 'Can someone determine 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...
Is Your Location Exposed 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 anyone 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.)
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. It's the same when you connect to the Internet via your smartphone's cellular data plan. The IP address for my Verizon phone resolves to Albany, New York, about 150 miles from my home. 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. Tor is a global network of anonymous proxy servers. Each node acts much like a VPN (virtual private network) server. It accepts your browser’s requests for Web content, connects to the server(s) on which the objects reside, downloads copies and transmits them to your browser. The remote server does not get any data about you, since you never connect to the remote server; a Tor node does that on your behalf. See my article New Tor Browser Is Surprisingly Polished for details on using Tor.
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 domain 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.
It's much more likely that you or a family member 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. And then there are data breaches, which have the potential to reveal all kinds of personally identifying information to the curious and malicious.
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 25 Oct 2019
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Does My Email or IP Address Expose my Physical Location? (Posted: 25 Oct 2019)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved