What Is the Legal Status of Your IP Address?

We all understand that while the internet provides us with anonymity, our online activities can be traced back to our physical addresses. This is because every device that connects to the internet is assigned an IP address. IP addresses change over time, and they can also be shared by a number of devices; so, how can they be traced back to individual users?

What Does Your IP Address Reveal About You?

Most people have a vague idea of what their IP address is – it is a unique number that identifies your device while you’re connected to the internet. However, there are a lot of misconceptions about how IP addresses work and exactly what information is included in them. Your IP address includes information about the geographical region you are located in and who your ISP is. On its own, it doesn’t identify you. However, it can be used to get specific information about you from your ISP.

Many people are under the impression that an IP address enables any action taken online to be easily traced back to an individual person but this is rarely the case. For one thing, if a device or internet connection is shared by multiple users, it is often difficult to establish exactly which user was responsible for any individual activity. The use of IP addresses as a means of identifying individual users is further complicated by the number of networks utilizing network address translation (NAT), which results in multiple users sharing a public IP address.

Can My IP Address Identify Me?

Whether your IP address can be used to identify you as an individual depends on the legal jurisdiction you are in. The US and the EU take very different stances on this issue.

Your IP Address in the US Legal System

A case that has been ongoing since 2010 has set precedents for the legal status of IP addresses in the US. The latest ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an IP address was not enough in itself to identify an individual user. That ruling came a few months ago but the case remains ongoing.

The case centers around Thomas Gonzales, a Comcast user who was accused of illegally downloading a film. Gonzales maintains that he had left his Wi-Fi as an open access point and someone else used the network to download the film. The Ninth Circuit Court upheld the ruling passed by the lower court that being the subscriber associated with an IP address is not enough to prove responsibility or culpability for online activity.

Your IP Address in the EU

The EU Court of Justice, on the other hand, has ruled that, in certain circumstances, an IP address can be regarded as personal data. According to the ruling, if website operators are able to legally identify the individual user by comparing their IP address with information held by the relevant ISP, the IP address should be regarded as personal information.

The case was initially bought in Germany by a citizen who wanted to prevent federal websites from logging and storing his IP address. The plaintiffs’ argument was that the German government was essentially processing his personal data without a legal basis for doing so, as required by GDPR. The ruling affirms the position that IP addresses can be considered personal data and are therefore subject to the same protections as other personal data under GDPR.

This means that anyone who wants to use your IP address to trace you will need to comply with GDPR – otherwise they would be processing personal data without your permission.

Hiding Your IP Address

It is also relatively simple to spoof or obscure an IP address, the tools and information needed to do so are freely available. An IP address cannot, in isolation, be used to conclusively associate an individual with specific online activity. Those who want to avoid having their IP address traced can simply use a public Wi-Fi network instead.

However, using a public Wi-Fi network isn’t always convenient and sharing your internet connection with other people means that your speeds will be limited. Many public Wi-Fi networks have additional restrictions in place that limit what you can do over them meaning they aren’t ideal for many online activities. Fortunately, you can hide your IP address and improve your online privacy without having to even leave your home.

The two most common ways of hiding an IP address are proxies and VPNs. Both of these technologies work using the same principle – they place an intermediary server between users and the internet. This results in servers seeing the IP address of the VPN or proxy server, not the device that is actually connecting.

Your IP address can ultimately be traced back to your physical address, but it is not like a digital fingerprint. Your IP address is more like a license plate – it is tied to one specific vehicle but doesn’t tell you who is in the drivers’ seat. By using a proxy or VPN, you can easily disguise your IP address and enhance your online privacy.

image credit: IP Address via FlashMovie/Shutterstock

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