It is completely excusable if you think that Amazon knowing your order history and Facebook knowing all your friends is “OK”. But consider the reality that the government is monitoring nearly everything you do on any network you use all the time. And, if they happen to miss something, it is the law (Congressional Acts) that they can simply request the missing information from any networked service you use. Add to that the fact that it is now the law that every connection point to a network (Cable, Phone, Cell) can sell your activity history to the highest bidder and we are talking about something altogether different.
Quick Review: What is my IP?
Write this down: there is only 1 source of information about you other than what you volunteer and it is your assigned Internet Protocol Address (“IP Address”). An IP Address is the “phone number” every device that connects to the Internet is assigned so data can be routed effectively. That address is assigned by your Internet Service Provider – that’s right, your Cable Company, Telephone Company, or Cell Phone company. Most of us have at least two providers – one for our home entertainment like our Xbox, Apple TV, Tablets, and Desktop Computer – and another for our phone (cellular or land-based). These are assigned an IP Address that attaches to you and where you are – they’ve got to send the bill somewhere, right? And that’s it. That IP Address is tied to your Home Billing address so reliably that there are now databases that correlate the two and they are available to anyone.
Everyone can see your IP
If you Don’t know your IP Address you should because Everyone Else does and you can see for yourself by visiting this Website. (Don’t worry, this is not an advertisement or affiliate link). For the cautious, this is a website that looks at the address from which you connect, and looks up the Latitude and Longitude of that IP Address from public databases. It may or may not be tied to your exact home address in the public databases but rest assured it is at your telecom provider! You’ll realize every time you connect to the Internet it is possible to see where you are in the real world – try checking at work, at the library, the cafe, your school, the hotel…
Does it really matter?
Think of it this way: pretend a team of spies (foreign or domestic) is following you every place you go. This team listens to all your phone calls, watches you at the cafe, peeks through your blinds at home, follows you in traffic, monitors as you shop, and takes note of all your friends and acquaintances. This is what is happening on the Internet. Every place you visit, every datacenter you traverse, every network you bridge, every email you send, every video you stream, every Facetime or Hangout or Skype you make, every website you visit, every app you open, every “Internet of Things” device you connect… they all have your IP Address stamped on them. That is before you ever log in, create a user account, or supply your credit card.
Are you sure this is how it works?
Here’s a practical example. We use Tumblr for social media and like to post and share things we think are cool and relevant. No one has ever “told Tumblr” where we are located – or anything for that matter. Yet we still see things like this advertisement. Think about this advertisement for a minute. It has made a number of assumptions about us to show an ad: age, gender, sexual preference, location, income, marital status, and a message that proclaims “Not Prostitutes”. Altogether, a pretty accurate profile!
How does Tumblr know all this information and what location to use for advertising? The starting point is by looking at the IP Address used most frequently to access their tools and resources. They see what images are clicked, users are followed, topics are liked, and comments are made, what computers are used, what mobile OS, what operating system, and begin to stitch together a detailed profile. Here is the proof sitting right in my account details (the red “redaction” is the IP Address):
This is just the start!
One more thing to consider: so far we are just talking about your starting point – your home location. When you pick up the phone or open an app or open a webpage the other half of the equation is where you are going. Not only does your destination know who you are but your ISP and any partner networks they use know who you are and where you are going. Keep in mind that even if you use secure webpages everyone can still see where you are going and how long you are there and how often you visit. This is why the government is requesting IP Addresses in the case of protesters. It is why “recording companies” request information from ISPs in copyright infringement. This is how autocratic regimes monitor (and restrict) where their citizens go.
Protecting your IP Address
Take the time to control who gets to know where you are going and where you live and work. To begin protecting yourself online, start with these first steps. A popular and effective choice is to use a “VPN” or Virtual Private Network. A great place to start is TunnelBear, which offers paid and free plans. Consider using the Tor Browser as an alternative Web Browser – even if its just when you feel insecure about an Internet destination. To learn more, an excellent resource is the website Privacy Tools, which features many free and paid tools. For an in depth explanation on how to protect your private data online, check out our article on Simple Everyday Internet Privacy.
So, I won’t have an IP Address?
Of course, you will still have have an IP Address. However, you won’t have your IP Address when browsing. The IP Address belongs to someone, somewhere but the critical point is that it doesn’t belong to you. Not only does this protect your privacy but it simultaneously throws doubt on the validity of known connections. Did they really come from the physical address associated with the IP Address or did it come from somewhere else in the Tor network? What other IP Addresses are routing anonymous traffic? How reliable is the data we think we have? What is even better is that now you can snicker to yourself when you see ads that show your profile is totally wrong.