Every time a film mentions technology, the term ‘IP’ (Internet Protocol) is used somewhere in the dialog. In the plot, stating an IP address automatically classifies the character as someone who “understands about computers.” And in most cases, it is possible to trace the IP down to a person or an address and arrest the culprit. It works like a charm… in the movies!
Hollywood found an easy solution to tie up the plot, and the term is now well known in the “non-IT” world. But in real life it is not quite like that.
I will here make a few statements that may surprise you, but don’t panic, I’ll explain them in a second:
- You don’t have an IP you can call yours!
- I’m not able to know where you live just by looking at your IP (it is not yours, remember?)
- I definitely cannot know your name from your IP
- It’s very easy to change your IP and escape any type of blockage
So, let’s take down these myths, one by one!
You don’t have an IP you can call yours
Everything that is connected to the internet has an IP This is how computers can meet and talk over the internet. My computer with IP “A” knows the Google server is on IP “B” and Google knows it must return the search result back to IP “A”.
But most of the time, the IP is not a fixed one. In fact, it changes on average once a day! When you log out of the internet, IP “A” is free to be assigned to another computer on the internet. So, the IP is not yours forever, it’s only for that moment.
How? IP actually belongs to your internet provider. Each provider has a list of IPs it controls. When a client connects himself to the internet, he borrows an IP from this pool. The provider only lends that IP for your computer to see cute kitten videos on the internet.
I’m not able to know where you live just by looking at your IP
There are tools that can find the origin and address of an IP. But if the IP is from the internet provider, so is the address. When researching, you will see the address of the IP owner, and not who is actually using it at the moment.
Here there’s a great difference between Brazil and the USA, which may have influenced Hollywood. The Americans have whole IP lists that are exclusive for corporates or public entities, among them, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google, libraries, hospitals, government institutions and even prisons (see the full list here). In Brazil, on the other hand, the IP belongs to the internet provider, and that’s it. There are exceptions only for public entities, such as ministries and courts.
Therefore, here, the most you will be able to know by looking at an IP is the city of the internet provider the user has hired. Since providers here cover a great area in the states, an user from a city X may have his IP tracked only until city Y. Another example: one of the engineers at Konduto lives in Campinas, but his IP is tracked to Curitiba – more than 450 km away!
I definitely cannot know your name from your IP
It goes without saying that, if the address is not yours, your name will never be connected to an IP. Therefore, scenes where an IP tracker brings an individual’s full name aren’t the least real.
It’s very easy to change your IP and escape any type of blockage
In the dial-up era (remember?), changing an IP was very easy. You only had to disconnect and dial up again to get a new IP. Now, with DSL connections, the modem is connected directly to the internet provider, and even if it is restarted, it is likely that you will get the same address.
However, it’s very easy to masquerade your original IP and make it look as if you were in China. Proxies are intermediaries that receive the data from your machine and send them forward, making it look as if they are the final end of the connection. VPNs, on the other hand, work as an “extension” of your home connection – it’s as if the DSL model were in another, very distant place. I recently knew Unblock-Us, a service that has a very smart work with DNS. Hollywood was right on this one.
Any company trying to identify fraudsters using an IP as the objective source is doomed to deliver bad results. IP analysis among hundreds of variables help to compose a scenario, but it is far from being something really important.
I hope I have helped to clarify some myths about IP addresses and what they can and cannot do.
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