Your devices use an IP (Internet Protocol) address to gain access to the online world. The easiest way to think about it is as a “phone number” that lets websites know who is contacting them, and where they should send the information you’re trying to access.
Unlike a landline, however, your IP address can’t just be looked up in a phone book or directory to find out your name or street address. Still, there are a number of identifying features your IP could reveal about you, including:
- Your country and city of residence
- Your Internet Service Provider (ISP)
- Your ZIP code
At first glance, you might say that’s not much to go by. And for the most part, you’re probably right. Yet there are quite a few ways your online experience could suffer if a service or a skilled cybercriminal has it out for you.
What People Can Do with Your IP Address
- Geo-blocking – Streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu use your IP address to determine your location and restrict access to their content if it’s not licensed in your country. In fact, entire websites could be unreachable in the EU due to GDPR regulations.
- Intrusive advertising – Since your IP lets advertisers know your location, you could be served eerily specific ads related to restaurants in your neighborhood, for example. Moreover, these ads could also be delivered in your native language.
- Reveal personal info – Just because you can’t be looked up by IP address, that doesn’t mean cybercriminals can’t hack into your ISP’s database and find out everything they need to know about you, including your name and physical address. Phishing attacks work just as well.
- DoS attacks – Short for Denial of Service, these attacks tend to happen in online gaming scenarios. Basically, a sore loser might flood you with unwanted traffic until your network goes down entirely.
Lastly, while we don’t condone any illegal activities, copyrighting agencies could sue you for infringement – which can get quite expensive depending on how much torrenting you’ve done. Way more than the price of 10 music albums, movies, or video games, that’s for certain.
How Someone Can Find Your IP Address
Since your IP address is basically a gateway to the Internet, it’s actually quite easy for somebody to find if they know where to look.
The IP address of everybody downloading or uploading a torrent is neatly displayed in the peer list of any torrenting client. Cybercriminals and copyrighting agencies alike could be monitoring these peer lists at any time. Obviously, your ISP will work with them to reveal your real-life identity.
Email message headers
Depending on the email service you use, your IP address could be displayed in its email header. Yahoo and Microsoft Outlook are two main examples that reveal the sender’s IP address.
Website owners and admins can check their logs if they need your IP for any reason. Not usually something to worry about, but rogue employees could use it to their advantage.
Website data leaks
With the Internet experiencing non-stop growth, these seem to be happening more frequently than ever. Take this example, where the IP addresses and location data of 42 million dating app accounts were leaked online.
It’s quite easy for an advertiser to get a hold of your IP address. If you’ve ever interacted with an ad, they probably already have it. Moreover, IP targeting by advertisers is a thing. Just so you know where those weirdly specific ads are coming from.
Now, there are several other methods of finding out your IP address, but for the average user, these situations are the ones that count the most. You could hide your IP address by using a VPN, but even then your IP could leak due to certain software and operating system design flaws.
How IP Leaks Happen
Here are the key ways your online identity could be exposed while using a VPN without leak protections in place:
IPv6 addresses (the latest iteration of IPs) have basically been implemented because IPv4 addresses are running out. Unfortunately, the adoption of the standard has been slow, meaning servers are not always compatible with IPv6. In the case of a VPN without leak protection, this could mean a website could read your IPv6 address.
The Domain Name System (DNS) is tasked with translating a website’s IP address into an easily understandable URL (like www.google.com, for example). Normally, DNS requests would be made through your VPN’s servers to protect your privacy. Due to features like Windows SMHNR, however, they could end up going through your ISP, basically nullifying that protection.
WebRTC is a feature that allows for audio and video communication straight from your browser. A major flaw is that your real IP address can be exposed with some simple requests to STUN servers, bypassing VPN protection in the process. This vulnerability can be fixed depending on the browser, whether through its advanced settings or by installing a script-blocking add-on to block the requests.
Not sure if your VPN is leaking your identity online? This IP Leak Tool will let you know immediately if anything’s wrong, whether it’s IPv4/IPv6, DNS, or WebRTC leakages.