IP address, short for Internet Protocol address, is a term that you’ve likely heard before if you’ve spent some time online. Although it sounds and might even seem like some sort of technobabble, the concept is actually quite simple: It’s a series of numbers that identifies every individual machine and simultaneously broadcasts their locations.
While you may not think these affect everything you do online, THEY DO!
Why IP Addresses Matter
How much web traffic is your personal blog amassing? Does your search history hold any secrets you don’t want someone else to find out? This, and a lot of other data you care about, is linked back to end users through their IP address.
Your blog tracker counts unique hits. The search history remembers that you’re the IP that typed it out. Your IP address matches the same router that is broadcasting WiFi inside your house right now, which means that all local devices on the network project the same one. That’s why your computer knows to recognize other devices nearby, or why you and a friend might have similar targeted ads when you visit their house.
IP addresses also project your geolocation, which is why you get ads for nearby services. If you look up “food near me,” it knows where “near you” is even if you aren’t using location services. That’s also why you might see local event notifications and other relevant advertisements that seem to know more about your hometown then you do.
Does that mean your IP address changes? Yes, actually. When you log into a new WiFi, you get assigned a new local address. This is a big reason why Internet users have beefed up their cybersecurity by using virtual private networks, especially when operating on public WiFi.
Benefits of VPNs
Virtual private networks (VPNs) allow you to browse the web anonymously. Instead of identifying your machine as well as its location, VPNs hide the IP address so your search history remains clean and disconnected from you. Trackers can’t follow, cookies won’t work and advertisements will have a hard time following you from website to website. Say goodbye to those sidebar ads for camping equipment because you Googled a s’mores recipe three months ago.
Why else does privacy matter? Public WiFi is inherently unsafe. Without password protection, hackers can more easily use it to capture your sensitive information when you use the same network. With a VPN, you can more safely browse in public spaces even if you need to check your bank statement or sensitive work emails.
VPNs have another use, though. IP addresses also broadcast the location of your computer. Say, however, that you really wanted to watch a show that’s only available in the UK, and you’re outside of it. As the middleman to your internet connection, VPNs will broadcast your location as the same place where the VPN servers lie. Therefore, you could purchase a VPN that both hides your activity and makes it seem like you’re operating from within the UK. There are free VPN services too, but those tend not to let you choose where you want to appear to be from.
IP addresses aren’t inherently good or bad, scary or safe. They’re like your driver’s license; identifying a machine and where it lives. There’s just an inherent danger of that private, identifying information falling into criminal hands. Understanding what IP means and how you or others might use that information lets you make your own decisions about when to stay anonymous online. When you’re using public WiFi, for instance, it’s not really anyone’s business where you’re logging in from while you transfer around some funds and approve a couple of orders.
Technology competence and cybersecurity go hand in hand. The more you know about the machines you rely on every day, the safer you’ll be using them — no matter why or where you go. Follow our blog for more tips!