Can you be tracked down on the Internet? In an always-on, Internet-driven world, privacy is in short supply, and you have to work pretty hard if you want to maintain any level of anonymity.
Not only can your Internet usage be traced back to you, but there are a variety of strategies that can be used to do so. In fact, if you’re a typical computer user, you’re probably being tracked one way or another right now.
That doesn’t mean you have to be paranoid about it — but it does mean you have to take some level of initiative to protect your security.
► Your IP Address And You
When you connect to the Internet, you’re assigned an IP address by your (ISP) Internet Service Provider. Your IP address is then used to connect to websites and other Internet-based services — essentially, it’s used just like a home address would be if someone needed to mail something to you.
A website only knows how to send data to you because it knows “where” you are. IP addresses are used for websites, email, online games, instant messaging — any Internet activity.
But an IP address isn’t just an assortment of numbers. An IP address is generally assigned geographically, by your IP. Through an IP address alone, an individual can tell where you live. They may not be able to tell your exact home address, but they can tell what city you live in. And depending on what other information you’ve left on the Internet, they may eventually be able to narrow that down to something more specific.
Of course, the larger your city is, the more unlikely it is that a stranger will be able to determine your location based on your IP address alone — but that is all assuming that it’s a random stranger that is trying to find you.
Law enforcement personnel and government agencies can request your address from your ISP, and your ISP will know exactly where you live and which address they assigned to you.
► Social Media And Location-Based Services
Of course, your IP address isn’t the only thing that can be used to locate you. The proliferation of social media has also made it quite easy for people to be found — and those who want their privacy will need to be conscientious about what they post.
Most social media accounts will give, at minimum, a city and a state. That’s not too bad. But other social media platforms will actively log where you are, and sometimes with a surprising amount of accuracy.
In early 2015, Facebook Messenger was discovered to be adding geographic information to their instant messaging service: individuals who hadn’t signed up for that type of geographic targeting were broadcasting their current location with every message they sent. Understandably, that could easily be considered to be a vulnerability. That being said, most people don’t expect anonymity on social media accounts.
► Email Addresses And Other Clues
Most people today use an email account from Gmail, Yahoo or another free service provider. But there are also email addresses that can easily give your location away.
Some ISPs offer their own domains, which can narrow your location down to a city or a state. Some individuals end up sticking with their .edu email addresses or with their company’s email address, which will also give a fairly reliable indication of where they are. Free service providers do track IPs, and consequently they, too, can be used by government officials or law enforcement to find you.
So, for the most part, while a casual Internet user isn’t going to be able to locate you unless you, yourself, have put the information regarding your location out there, government and law enforcement will usually be able to find and track you through your Internet activity. And today, there is an exceptional amount of private information placed on the web, enough information that most people would be able to stitch together a reasonable amount of information regarding where you are.
► “Doxxing” And The Internet Detective
But why would someone try to track you down? Malicious users or simply curious individuals are often dubbed “Internet detectives” for their skills at tracking someone down based on the information that has been presented. “Internet detectives” can use a wide variety of tools to find out where someone lives, and it doesn’t necessarily need to go through technical channels such as IP addresses and ISPs.
The practice of finding someone’s real name and address based on Internet activity and revealing this information is commonly known as “doxxing.” It’s often used to end arguments or simply to make threats.
As an example, an Internet detective may be fixated on a user named “abcd123” on an Internet forum. They don’t know anything about abcd123 except that they once mentioned a landmark that is in Toronto.
They can search for “abcd123” and find someone on a dating site who also lives in Toronto. From there, they could “reverse image search” abcd123’s dating profile picture, linking them to a seller account on eBay.
The seller account on eBay may link to a web domain for abcd123’s real life business. By getting the “Whois” information from that domain, the Internet detective will find out not only abcd123’s real name and address, but also their phone number.
► Protecting Your Location On The Internet
♦ Connect through a proxy to hide your IP. If you’re worried that someone may be tracking your IP, you can always connect through a proxy. A proxy operates as an intermediary, hiding your identity from the websites and Internet services that you connect to.
♦ Turn off location-based services on your devices. A tablet could be broadcasting your current location through the Internet at any given time, as could a smartphone.
♦ When posting public information, be as vague as possible. Don’t reference local landmarks or other information that could lead someone back to you. Remember that social media accounts aren’t always private: some information is posted to the public.
When it comes right down to it, there are many ways for individuals to find you from the Internet, but the larger threat to your identity and your location will generally be the information that you put out there.
This includes emails you send, comments you make, and social media profiles you create. IP tracking can bring people close to where you are, but it can’t give them an address unless they are law enforcement or government officials.
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- Lohr, Steve, “How Privacy Can Vanish Online, a Bit at a Time”, The New York Times, Wednesday, March 17, 2010
- Gazaleh, Mark (2008) Online trust and perceived utility for consumers of web privacy statements – Overview WBS, 35pp.
- Federal Trade Commission, Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: A Proposed Framework for Businesses and Policymakers, December 2010
- Topolsky, J. (2012, February 16). “Tempted by cool apps, users should see Apple’s privacy issues as a wake-up call”. Washington Post, p. A15.
- PRISM-Proof Security Considerations, Internet-Draft, Phillip Hallam-Baker, Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), 11 September 2013.
- Expectation of privacy for company email not deemed objectively reasonable – Bourke v. Nissan
- “Online Privacy: Using the Internet Safely – Privacy Rights Clearinghouse”. privacyrights.org.
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