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Establishing a direct file transfer in an instant messaging program can expose your IP address. I'll discuss whether that's a problem or not.

It's often possible to get someone else's IP address by establishing a direct connection via an instant messaging tool.

In this audio clip from an Ask Leo! webinar, I'll discuss how a firewall protects you from any malicious activity and why, while the remote side does have your IP address, it really doesn't matter.

Download the mp3 (9M)


'Someone tried to get my IP address using file transfer via MSN Live Messenger, but blocked out by Norton 360. Did he establish direct connection successfully and manage to get my IP address in this way?'

So, IP address tracing is one of those questions that I get over, over, over and over again.

Let me answer those questions backwards.

Did he manage to get your IP address? Probably. Since I don't know specifically how Yahoo in this particular case, MSN Messenger, since I don't know how they specifically architect their protocol to establish a direct connection I can't say for sure that he did or did not but I would assume that he did. That's the safest assumption because it's the one that has you the most concerned.

Did he establish a direct connection successfully? Probably not. It sounds like Norton did the right thing and blocked that connection.

So what that boils down to is that the individual at the other end of that connection doesn't have a direct connection to your machine but may very well have your IP address to which I say 'so what'.

I mean the IP address, whatever; it doesn't give people access to your machine or to your location or anything that people seem to get pretty worked up about.

IP address, yes it identifies a specific machine connected to the internet. The location of the machine is actually only known to the ISP and it's not something that the ISP will simply just tell you. You need to go to the ISP and tell them and ask them, 'we've got this IP address, and we've been able to trace it so that we know you own this IP address; it's one of your customers, please tell us where this customer is and the ISP is going to say 'no, not without a warrant'.

That's where things can happen.

When you see things on the police drama shows, 9 times out of 10; a) they never happen as fast as they do on TV but they come in with a warrant. b) they actually have the legal authority to request that the ISP turn over that information.

Now, granted, that's United States, U.S. centric answer there; the laws about how the information can or cannot be handed over will vary depending on what country you happen to be in but in the United States at least, it requires a court order.

Now if they have your IP address can they get access to your machine? Well, no, at least not unless you are being very lax with your own security. As long as you're behind a router, it's the router they have the IP address of, not your computer and the router is going to protect you from unwarranted or unexpected connection or attempts to connect to your computer.

So as long your behind a router, they can have your IP address; it's just no big deal.

It will let them identify what country you're in; it will let them identify what ISP you use and in some cases it may get as close as your city. But my IP address depending on how you look it up will tell you either that it exists in Woodinville, which it does so you've got many square miles of and thousands and thousands of square miles if you're trying to find me. Or, some will tell you that it's in Seattle which is 10 miles away. Some will tell you that it's in Portland which is 200 miles away and I've had at least one that said I was in California which just blew me away.

So IP tracing is just not that big a deal; it's not the kind of thing I worry about and it sounds like your firewall and Norton 360 did the right thing by blocking the attempt to connect directly.

Article C5082 - February 18, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

February 21, 2012 10:23 AM

"but in the United States at least, it requires a court order." ......for now, I believe mr. obama is trying to change that.....(Google - ACTA treaty)

February 21, 2012 6:14 PM

IP tracing alone probably isn't a big deal. However if someone dangerous already knows a few things about you it can indeed be help them put together the pieces to find you. If your communicating with someone from a work network it may indeed show where you work. Knowing the town a person lives in alone is far too little to find a person, but that combined with a few other pieces of info may be all a dangerous individual needs.

February 24, 2012 3:05 PM

In some instances the ISP will hand over the IP address without a court order if there is a potential that the user will do harm to themselves and the physical address is necessary for the police to do a welfare check. My girlfriend, and another friend of mine both work for a crisis center and need to get peoples physical addresses on a fairly regular basis if a suicide attempt is believed to be imminent.

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