The IP Address: Your Internet Identity, Part 1
The Internet, sometimes called "the network of networks," is based upon one simple principle: transferring information from one computer to another. In order to do this each computer needs an identity which is called the "Internet Protocol address" or "IP address."
The amount of information available about users from their IP addresses varies greatly depending on how they are connected to the Internet and other information that may be available. Logging the IP address is also essential in system security for tracing unauthorized use and computer break-ins. As fixed Internet connections increase, more and more users can be traced directly from their IP address. Click Here to see a demonstration of IP address tracing.
IP Addresses and Domain Names
Computers connected to the Internet must speak the "Internet language" called the "Internet Protocol" or simply "IP." Each computer is assigned a unique address somewhat similar to a street address or telephone number. Under the current system there are four numbers that range from 0 to 255 (Example: 255.255.255.255). Every computer, whether it functions as a web site, is being used by a web surfer, is a mail server, and / or is used for any other function, has an IP address so it can communicate across the Internet. Communication is accomplished by sending pieces of information called "packets" that include the IP address of the destination computer.
Up to this point, domain names have not yet been mentioned because they are not needed for the Internet to work! An optional feature of the Internet is to use domain names. With this system I can tell users to visit 'domain.com' rather than 255.255.255.255. If there are several computers in a network they can be grouped under a single domain and could be given 'friendly' names for convenience such as: computer1.domain.com, computer2.domain.com, etc. This has the added convenience of keeping the same computer names even when the IP addresses change or if the computers move to a different physical location. Again, this naming is optional and is not always done. As a side note, the underlying IP addresses have no intrinsic value but the optional domain names can be worth thousands of dollars and have been the subject of many court cases.
The Domain Name System (often called DNS) is the system where the IP addresses are converted into names. When www.domain.com is entered by a user into a browser a (somewhat hidden) process converts that name into 255.255.255.255. This allows the user to connect to the proper Website and usually involves a domain registration service funded by domain name fees. A common situation that causes IP addresses to be distributed to a third party is when visiting a web site and that site participates in banner ad networks where the ads are served from a third party site.
How Are IP Addresses Distributed
Every transfer of information over the Internet must include the capture of the IP address. Some examples of automatic logging are: visiting a web site, sending or receiving e-mail, using a chat room, or reading and posting to newsgroups. A common situation that causes IP addresses to be distributed to a third party is when visiting a web site and that site participates in banner ad networks where the ads are served from a third party site. This third party site retrieves the IP address when it sends the ad. This information is used to measure the number of ad views and calculate click-through rates.
Transferring IP addresses to a third party can also be accomplished by sending a web page via e-mail. When the user opens the attachment (if they are connected to the Internet) the e-mailed web page could make a request to a web site anywhere on the Internet (such as requesting an image file). This transfers the user's IP address to that web site along with the date and time that the user opened the message. An Internet cookie can also be placed on the user's system at that time. Several advertisers already engage in this practice. This method could also be used to defeat anonymous e-mail.
In my next article, we'll see how users can be traced from their IP Addresses, and discuss the privacy implications that this raises: