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A frequent question I get on Ask Leo! relates to IP addresses, and how much you can find out from one.
It get this from both sides. On one hand, I hear from people who are concerned that someone can track them down physically - perhaps find out their home address - based on their IP address. On the other hand, I also hear from people who want to find out who's at some IP address, because they're being contacted in some form, and that's the only bit of potentially identifying information they have to grab on to.
Publicly available information about an IP address can typically only be traced as far as the ISP that owns it. If the IP happens to correspond to a registered domain name, then perhaps the domain registration might provide a little more information - or not.
It's the ISP that assigns the IP address to an individual device on the internet. And a good ISP will not reveal to whom they've allocated the address to just anyone. In fact, my assumption is that legal action and possibly law enforcement of some sort would be required for an ISP to release that information.
In many cases, the information is even more obscure. Instant Messaging conversations typically do not include the IP address of the participants. If, for example, you're attempting to track down who is IM'ing you, you'll probably need the help of the IM provider such as AOL, MSN, or one of the others. Same for most web-based email providers and messages - not all contain the IP address of the actual originator, so you'll need the provider's help to track it down. Again, that's not help I'd expect to get without legal action.
In reality, I consider that great news. While it's important that that information be made available when it's appropriate, meaning legal action, I think we all want our privacy too. The ISPs and service providers are important gatekeepers of that privacy.
So don't go expecting to find a lot of information based on an IP address unless you've got a valid and defensible reason. And conversely, while technically it is possible to track down an IP address to a specific machine and location, it's not easy, and it's not something that the general public can do.
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