Can an IP Address Really Be Traced?

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What Is an 'IP Address'?

You see this 'IP address' expression more and more. Your computer has an IP address, your smartphone has an IP address. Even Pepsi machines have IP addresses. Cops on TV shows like 'Criminal Minds' can trace criminals by their IP addresses. But what exactly is an "IP address"? (Tech point: an IP address is different from a domain name address or a MAC (media access control) address.)

Can an IP Address Really Be Traced?

IP address, or 'internet protocol address', is a unique identifying number given to every single computing device on the Internet. Like a car license plate, an IP address is a special serial number used for identification.  And yes: law enforcement can trace IP addresses to geographic locations, sometimes to within a few meters of the computer.

Any machine connected to the Internet and World Wide Web has an IP address: Playstation games, cell phones, tablets, fax machines, and even soda pop dispensers have IP addresses. In every case, the IP address acts both like a car license plate and like a telephone number: it shows ownership, allows the machine to be located by other machines, and empowers authorities to track and protect people's safety if need be.

How IP Addresses Look

IP version 4 addresses are the first of two common formats. IPv4 addresses are comprised of 4 numbers-only segments separated by dots:

  • e.g. 127.0.0.1
  • e.g. 253.16.44.22
  • e.g. 72.48.108.101

IP version 6 addresses are more complex. IPv6 addresses are comprised of 8 segments, separated by colons:

  • e.g. 3ffe:1900:4545:3:200:f8ff:fe21:67cf
  • e.g. 21DA:D3:0:2F3B:2AA:FF:FE28:9C5A

For nearly every web server, the IP address is invisibly translated into a natural English "domain name" for ease of use.

But technically speaking, the IP address is the true identifier of a web server...the domain name is simply a redirector pointer to help people find the web server.

Here are three IP addresses, with their corresponding domain names. Both the IP address and domain name URL can be used to connect to the same web server:

  • e.g. 72.246.51.15 = www.nasa.gov
  • e.g. 152.91.56.138 = www.gov.au
  • e.g. 208.185.127.40 = www.about.com

Your ISP has a block of IP addresses to lend:
Internet authorities allot large bundles of IP address numbers to regional internet service providers. Those ISP's, in turn, assign the IP addresses to every server and every internet user who logs on. Yes, there are millions of IP addresses active at any instant.

More about IP addresses:

  • Trivia point 1: before the World Wide Web became popular in the 1990's, every computer was assigned a fixed ("static" IP address). But with so many millions of internet users today, ISPs now choose to "lend" IP addresses from a pool of numbers. This is much like dealer license plates being shared among test drive vehicles at a car dealership. This loaning of IP addresses is called "dynamic IP addressing", and is proven to work better for individual users.
  • Trivia point 2: often, it is possible to identify where a user is in the world by their IP address. Web sites like www.whatismyipaddress.com/ can read your computer's IP address, compare it to its database of ISP's, and attempt to guess your location on the planet.
  • Trivia point 3: it is possible to mask or digitally alter the appearance of your computer's IP address. You would do this for the sake of privacy or to avoid authorities tracking your online habits.
  • Trivia point 4: within office networks, each office computer is given an "internal IP address". As soon as an office computer accesses the internet, it then borrows the office's main IP address. This works much like office telephone numbers: a unique internal extension number is assigned to every user, but as soon as any person dials out of the office, call display will only show the office's main phone number. This is known as internal vs. external IP addressing​ and is a necessary technique to reduce the number of IP addresses on the internet.
  • Trivia point 5: Many computer-enabled organizations use IP addressing standard Version 4 (aka "IPv4"). Simultaneously, a new generation of addresses has been released called IPv6. The biggest change is in the number of available addresses. Instead of 4.3 billion possible IP addresses, IPv6 will bring us 34,000,000,000,000,000,000 billion possible IP addresses. Read more about IPv6 here.