If you are new to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), you may be wondering why exactly you need to hide your IP address. You could be forgiven for thinking: "What's the big deal - it's just a number."
It's true that an IP address is just a bunch of numbers, but those numbers are unique to you. Without your unique IP address, websites wouldn't be able to route traffic to you. Unfortunately, the way that IP addresses work also means that they can reveal your location.
In this article, we will explain everything it is possible to do with an IP address. We will look at how IPs are used most often, and in what circumstances it is vital to protect your IP with a VPN.
IP address tracking
As we've already mentioned, every time you visit a website your IP address is seen, and is usually logged. By keeping tabs on IP addresses, companies are able to build profiles of their customers. They know if it's your first time on the site or if you are a repeat customer, what you have bought on previous occasions, and by extrapolation, what you might desire in the future.
So when you visit a website, buy something, or just search for something on Google - your IP address is being logged. IP addresses, therefore, an important way for websites to track users online, although they also use a range of other sneaky tactics.
In addition to Google and the websites you visit, your internet service provider (ISP) is also often tracking your browsing history and keeping it on file next to your IP address.
Mandatory Data Retention
In some countries, such as the UK or Australia, web browsing histories must be stored by ISPs on behalf of the government. In the US, this isn’t mandatory, but ISPs store web browsing histories next to IP addresses anyway, as the law permits them to sell that data to third parties.
What you do online can be used to make detailed inferences about you. That is why firms often sell data tied to your IP address onto marketing firms. The result is that more and more people can access your data and figure things out about you.
Canadian Privacy Commissioner’s Office
To see just how much data can be mined from a single IP address, the Canadian Privacy Commissioner’s Office (OPC) funded a study. Researchers used a search engine to ascertain that the following sites and services had been accessed from a specific IP address :
- Legal advice related to insurance law and personal injury litigation
- A specific religious group
- Fitness websites
- Online photo sharing
- The revision history of a Wikipedia entry
- A site relating to sexual preferences
Details like the ones discovered above allow for a very specific and detailed profile about a person to be created. Most troubling? Those details can be used to make secondary inferences. One only needs to understand the level of personal inferences that can be deduced by analyzing somebody’s Facebook “likes” to realize just how invasive these practices are.
What can an individual find out about me from my IP?
Anybody that has your IP address can use it to figure out who your ISP is. In addition, they can easily find out your approximate location (region/city/town). This is because ISPs tend to assign blocks of IPs to the same areas for ease. With enough effort it is even possible to figure out the physical address for a specific IP address by communicating with the ISP.
However, ISPs are not (usually) likely to part with your personal data unless you have committed a crime. Having said that, in the US, the Trump administration has made it legal for ISPs to sell web browsing histories to third parties. This makes it possible that your records might be purchased by a random third party.
So how long do these ISP records last? In Australia, ISPs must store web browsing histories for two years, while in the UK, mandatory data retention lasts for 12 months. In the US, where ISPs are permitted to make a profit from such records, they could hang around indefinitely.
Does an IP last forever?
Most of the time, the IP address assigned to you by your ISP is not fixed. Most ISPs hand out dynamic IPs from a pool of addresses. This means they are only temporary. Under some circumstances, turning off your router might be enough to assign you a new IP from the pool.
Despite this fact, your dynamic IP is always known to your ISP. So even if you are automatically allocated a new IP address (it is done on a first come, first serve basis), your web browsing habits are still being recorded by your ISP.
Targeted advertising with an IP address
Building a detailed user profile from IP addresses is not an exact science. Dynamic addresses change when they are reassigned, and a number of people often share a single IP address. Each home, for example, usually has a single IP address shared by a family with a diverse range of interests. This makes targeting ads based on IP addresses somewhat inefficient.
Despite this, you may have noticed that after your partner, friend, or family member, searches for something - like watches or handbags - you also receive advertising for these products on your devices. This is because of IP address targeted advertising.
IP targeted advertising is also used to perform location-aware advertising. This ensures that you only see adverts for things close to where you live. It is also worth noting that targeted ads use a lot of other tracking methods.
Why you need to conceal your IP address if you BitTorrent
If you use a BitTorrent client to download pirated content then it is easy for a copyright holder to see your IP address, as peers can always see the IP address of other peers downloading the same content. The copyright holder can then simply ask your ISP to identify the user of that IP at the time the offense took place, getting you into trouble.
Legal firms working on behalf of copyright holders are known to send out fines to people who they believe have pirated content via P2P. For example, ACS Law used IP addresses to tie individuals to illegal downloads. That law firm sent out letters demanding up to $500 compensation on behalf of copyright holders.
For this reason, it is highly advisable to protect yourself with a VPN if you intend to download via P2P.
Do I need to worry about hackers knowing my IP address?
On the whole, the answer to this question is a no. However, there are specific circumstances when knowing your IP address may be enough for somebody to hack you. If you have an out of date operating system (OS), no firewall, and/or no anti-virus, it is conceivable that someone could attempt to hack you.
If you have an up to date system, on the other hand, it is likely that you would already need to be infected with malware or a virus for a hacker to attack you. Nowadays, there are countless vulnerabilities, malware for routers, and even hardware vulnerabilities that can be exploited. For this reason, it is generally agreed that it is beneficial to conceal your real IP address when you use the internet.
Can hackers attack my IP address if I BitTorrent?
When you download via P2P using a BitTorrent client, you are directly connecting to a number of computers around the world. It is possible that during that process you may connect to a malevolent peer that belongs to a hacker.
If you are infected with a virus that a hacker knows how to exploit, you have open ports, are running an out of date OS, or have no firewall, it is possible that the hacker could attack you. Here is one example of an IP being used to hack a remote computer using Kali.
For this reason, it is generally wise to conceal your IP address from BitTorrent peers with a VPN.
What can someone do with my IP address - Conclusion
The things you do online from your IP address can eventually be tied to you (or the person that pays your internet bill). Although hacking with an IP address alone is highly unlikely - it is not unheard of. So it is worth protecting yourself by concealing your IP.
A VPN allows you to hide your real IP address from the websites you visit in order to stop them tracking you and creating a profile on you. It also stops your ISP from being able to keep tabs on what you do online. A VPN is an extremely affordable way to improve both your online security and digital privacy.