Does My Email or IP Address Expose my Physical Location?

Category: Privacy

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.)

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. 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.

Proxify and The Cloak are also anonymous proxy sites that supply an encrypted connection, keep cookies remote then delete them after a session. A proxy can also be configured to selectively remove content such as Javascript and Java. Usage is free, but a paid services with additional features are also available.

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.

Other Considerations

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...

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

Posted by:

Laurie
25 Oct 2019

Depending on a person’s overall usage patterns in the Internet, an email address could be used to determine identity.

Doing a google search of a specific email address may yield enough clues to put it together. There are also paid services that will look for these associations and put them together in a neat little box of name, email address, phone, etc. While these aren’t always accurate, they are accurate frequently enough. And while, yes, the ability to do this this does typically involve some carelessness on the user’s part, it may be a lower level of carelessness than one might expect.

Also, remember to opt out of letting personal details such as hometown or birthday (even just month and day) be visible on the profiles of places such as social media sites and online forums.


Posted by:

Charley
25 Oct 2019

By doing a Google search on your email address, or by using various services (many of them charge a few dollars), it is often possible to find who you are from your email address.


Posted by:

Cold City
25 Oct 2019

How does my wifi only iPad find my exact location even if it is not connected to any router?


Posted by:

Lucy
25 Oct 2019

The first thing that struck me was that I will, from now on, always check what personal info is shown on any site for other users before I post something.

Second, I cannot recommend too highly that people use a disposable email address to post. Then if anything like this happens it can be deleted.

Third is a question... If a VPN is used would the IP Address even have been sent to the website for them to share with the world?


Posted by:

Paul
25 Oct 2019

Cold City: wifi connects your ipad to your router; the ipads all have gps.


Posted by:

Michael
25 Oct 2019

I used to use Geektools to look up folks IP address. Outlook use to make it easy to find, then I could send back an e-mail to a salesperson and ask them how the weather was, or if they liked the hotel they were staying at. All good fun.


Posted by:

Frank
26 Oct 2019

Even if you were able to get my email address, I think it would be hard to discover who I am. There is nothing in my email account that I am using for access to this website that has my real name. I have numerous email accounts which don't have my real name. These were made before some email providers asked for a mobile phone number before you could sign up, such as Yahoo or Outlook.


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