Your Online ID: The IP Address

IP addresses are key components of today's communication systems. Everything from the World Wide Web to local networks relies on IP addresses for different purposes. In simple terms, an IP address allows a machine or a computer to connect to other IP addresses and a wider network.

In terms of the internet in general, IP addresses are used to connect servers and clients in a seamless way. When you open a URL, a DNS server translates that readable URL into a server IP address that the browser can connect to. The flow of information from the server to your machine happens the same way. But what can someone do with your IP address is not only a matter of connectivity, it also concerns your privacy as well.

A Technical Look at IP Addresses

The public-facing IP address that your computer or devices receive act as your online identification. Servers can recognize requests coming from your devices - and send replies to the correct devices - based on the IP address they receive.

It is easy to see how IP addresses are crucial. There are two versions of IP addresses currently in use, with IPv4 being the more common one. Addresses that use a four number format such as 1.1.1.1 and 8.8.8.8 use the IPv4. It is the IP address used in a TCP/IP network. As the name suggests, it is also the 4th version of Internet Protocol or IP.

There can only be 4 billion possible combinations under the IPv4 standard, and the rise of internet-enabled devices make that 4-billion limit difficult to maintain. IPv6 was developed as an answer to the world running out of IPv4s.

IPv6 switches the whole IP system from 32-bit to 128-bit, allowing for 3.4 x 1038 IP addresses to be allocated to devices across the globe. Instead of 1.1.1.1, you get a set of hexadecimal digits such as 2010:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7211.

The introduction of IPv6 also brings a number of advancements in other aspects. IPv6 allows for a more efficient routing of network traffic thanks to its bigger routing tables. IPv6 is also friendlier to network roaming because there are no subnets and other limitations to conform to.

At the same time, IPv6 uses IPsec - headers used to secure IP-based communications - by default, allowing for a more secure network. IPv4, on the other hand, uses IPsec as an option rather than by default. As the web moves on to IPv6, the security of our networks also increases.

That boost in IP-level security is further enhanced by features such as checksum. Instead of using header checksum the way it is used now, which relies on devices to perform checks themselves, IPv6 handles checksum from end to end.

These changes are crucial to the future of IP addresses. IPv6 is positioned as the foundation of future connectivity, offering robustness, expandability, and ease of use without forcing bigger investments such as hardware changes and the complete configuration of networks.

IP Addresses for Users

We mentioned how an IP address acts as your personal ID online. Servers recognize your devices and other networking details based on your IP address. Unless your IP address has access to a certain server and can be verified properly, you cannot stream information from the server to your device.

Your public IP address, however, is not a secret. Servers regularly - if not always - log your IP address every time you send requests. They also log the replies they send back to your devices, creating a complete picture of your communications with the server.

The unique online identifier can be static or dynamic. Static IP addresses are assigned to you permanently (or until a change is needed). No matter when or how many servers you access, you are broadcasting the same IP address to all of them.

A dynamic IP address, on the other hand, gets changed every time you connect to a network. This means you may be broadcasting different IP addresses depending on when and where you connect to the internet.

Here's the catch: finding your IP address is not difficult. Sites like whatsmyip will tell you your public IP address every time you access the site. In fact, you can Google "What is my IP address?" and receive your IP address in the search result.

We have also discussed how servers log your IP address regularly. Every time you access a website or a web service, your IP address gets added to the server logs. That brings us to another point about IP addresses.

Your IP Address Says a Lot About You

The fact that servers can log your IP address is only the beginning. There is a lot that servers - and the people behind those servers - can learn about you from your IP address. The first detail that can be recognized from IP addresses is your location (geolocation using IP address).

Based on your activities on the server, there are also a lot of details that can be gathered. Your preferences, how you interact with the site, and even details about your purchases and actions can be collected.

More importantly, your IP address can be used to track you across multiple websites. This is why a new industry of VPNs and proxies has cropped up for protecting users' IP addresses. As it stands now, it is a good idea to protect your IP address, but it is far from the only solution you need to use to achieve complete anonymity.