Are IP Addresses Traceable?
BackBy Andrew Bonslater — August 2008
Q: Can someone really tell who you are by using your IP address?
A: To fully answer this question, let’s start by determining how your IP address is configured. An Internet protocol (IP) address is a unique address used to identify computers on a network similar to a street address for a house.
There are two types of IP configurations: static and dynamic. A static IP address is manually assigned to a computer by an administrator and typically does not change. A dynamic IP address is generally a temporary address that is typically assigned randomly or by a server. If you are unsure whether your computer uses a static or dynamic IP address, most likely it is dynamic. Dynamic IP addresses usually are assigned on local area networks. Most Internet service providers (ISPs) will only assign a static IP address for specific purposes or needs.
Because most IP addresses are dynamic and assigned by your ISP, it would be difficult for anyone to be able to trace an IP to a specific computer and find out information about you. Yes, it can be done, but your common Internet user will not have access to pull that information. Most dynamic IP addresses will be traced to your ISP and not directly to you.
To obtain the actual name and address of the user for an IP address would require your ISP to look up this information, which will typically require a court order. In many situations, the only information you can obtain from an IP address would be the ISP the user is connected with and an approximate physical location, which is most likely the location of your ISP. If you are connecting to the Internet from work, your IP address can be easily routed to the company network you are connected to.
There are many Web sites you can use as an IP locator. They appear to be somewhat accurate, but usually will locate the area your ISP is located, not where your computer is physically located. The large ISPs that carry a majority of the Internet’s traffic will locate all IP addresses owned by that ISP to the same city, making it geographically inaccurate. They also can be unreliable if your IP address has not been added to the IP locator’s database.
Another way of finding information about the user of an IP is to run a trace route. Again, this will only provide you general information about the location of a user, which could only be the location of the ISP. This can be accomplished on a Windows computer by opening your command prompt (go to the Start menu, Run, type “cmd” and press OK) and type “tracert ” (replace with the actual IP address you are looking up).
When you run a trace route, you will notice each jump that it takes to route your trace to the destination IP address. Each jump displayed in the trace route typically is a router or ISP that the request has to traverse during its route to the destination IP address. More than likely, the last jump displayed in the trace route will be either the final router or ISP that the destination computer is using to connect to the Internet.
It is not technically possible to hide an IP address from a network. Hiding an IP address would mean your computer is no longer connected to the Internet. However, one way for you to anonymously connect to the Internet is by using an anonymous proxy server. An anonymous proxy server works as an intermediary between your computer and the Internet, making requests and receiving responses on your behalf. Your computer makes a request to the anonymous proxy server, which in turn makes the request to the Internet and relays the response back to your computer.
The purpose for using this method is that all Internet requests will route to the IP address of the proxy server and not directly to your computer’s IP address. Using an anonymous proxy server only requires a configuration setting in your Web browser. There are many free, anonymous proxy servers on the Internet, but these may cause your Web surfing to suffer performance loss and bandwidth limitations.
Finally, always make sure your Windows software is consistently updated.
Andrew Bonslater, MCTS, MCSD, MCAD, is a solutions developer for mid- to large-sized organizations. He is a thought leader with Crowe Chizek in Chicago. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.