Is Your Home Address Exposed Online?
An AskBob reader wonders: 'Are my personal details (name, home address, etc.) exposed if someone has my email or IP address? I am 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 When You Surf the Web?
Let's start with this... it's no secret that your IP address is no secret. It's a basic and essential 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. Sort of.
But that DOES NOT mean that anyone can find your home address or current location 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 clever 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 smartphone resolves to Albany, New York, about 150 miles from my home. And if you're connecting to a public wifi hotspot in a library or coffee shop, the IP address will be associated with that venue's wireless service provider - not you at all.
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 pound salt. 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 Tor Browser: Polished and Private 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, an email forwarding service, or even a disposable email address. Given the domain name, one might employ a search engine to determine the domain owner's physical location, but nothing personally identifying about the email user without a court order. (In days gone by, a WHOIS search would reveal the mailing address of a domain name owner, but as of 2018, that information is redacted for privacy purposes.)
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. ProtonMail, an anonymous email service based in Switzerland, made headlines in September of 2021 when they divulged the IP address of one user, in order to comply with Swiss law.
And then there are the all-too-frequent 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 malware on your system, all bets are off. Those things are designed to violate your privacy.
Bottom line: The physical 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. Your email address is also an unreliable indicator of your actual location.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 22 Mar 2022
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Is Your Home Address Exposed Online? (Posted: 22 Mar 2022)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved