You probably know that your online behaviors are being tracked and analyzed constantly. But have you ever wondered how, with the millions — billions — of people using the internet every day, companies can parse you out from the crowd?
It all comes down to your IP address, which you can think of almost as your digital mailing address. IP addresses can also identify your general location. This allows businesses to filter the content or products you see on their web pages based on their availability in your area.
For example, if you’ve ever tried to watch a show on streaming services only to find out it’s unavailable in your country, that’s because your IP address points to where you are in the world. Plus, companies can also connect it with whatever other information they have on you to better cater to your tastes and interests.
Cyber threats are constantly evolving, and without protection in place to keep it safe, cybercriminals and other bad actors can use your IP address to track your activity and access your devices, networks, and information. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the different types of IP addresses and how they work, along with some tools that can help keep your IP address safe.
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How do IP addresses work?
Every device that connects to a network is assigned a string of numbers that distinguishes it from the other devices on the network. An IP address is a set of four numbers ranging from zero to 255, separated by periods.
Each unique IP address on the Internet is generated by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). Along with devices, IP addresses are also assigned to websites, and they’re associated with the site’s domain name to help users find them easily. Domain names are created to be easy for users to remember and use, unlike IP addresses, which can be hard to memorize.
When you type a domain name into the address bar of your web browser, the Domain Name System (DNS) converts it into its associated IP address to direct your browser to the proper destination. Or, if you already know the site’s IP address, you can connect to it directly from your browser.
Types of IP addresses
Now that you have a basic understanding of IP addresses and how they work, let’s take a closer look at the different types. Generally, IP addresses fall into four categories:
- Dynamic. A dynamic IP address is assigned each time a host joins the network. That means it changes each time a connection is made instead of remaining the same over time. Dynamic IP addresses are typically used by residential users and small businesses that don’t provide services over the Internet. If you did want to provide services over the Internet using a dynamic IP address, you’d need to set up Dynamic DNS, which updates the DNS when the IP address changes to ensure that users can connect properly.
- Static. A static IP address is configured into the host software and doesn’t change. Most websites have static IP addresses, keeping them in the same spot so users can connect to them easily.
- External. External IP addresses are assigned by ISPs. This is the address your browser uses when connecting to webpages, and it helps ISPs identify their users and keep track of their online activity.
- Internal. Internal IP addresses are used to keep track of the various devices connected to a router. These IP addresses are kept hidden, and they change depending on how many devices are connected to the router.
IP address-related security threats
Protecting your IP address as a user may not seem like as high of a priority as protecting usernames and passwords, but it should still be a part of your security plan. A robust cybersecurity plan should include all possible defenses against unauthorized users accessing your personal details.
Generally speaking, your IP address can’t be used to get your personal or financial information, but there are still ways hackers can use this information to their advantage. The main security threats associated with having your IP address exposed include:
- IP address bans. An IP address ban blocks you from accessing certain websites or limits your ability to submit information, upload files, or make comments on content posted to the site. This is typically done in response to someone with your IP address violating the website’s rules or terms of service.
- Denial of service (DoS) attacks. These attacks are performed by hackers who overwhelm your network with traffic, causing it to crash and overloading the network’s capabilities. For large businesses, DOS attacks can cost thousands in lost profits until the issue is resolved and the network is brought back online.
- Unauthorized access to systems and devices. Hackers can exploit security vulnerabilities in devices that are connected to the Internet to gain access to devices and servers. For example, an unsecured camera might allow anyone with your IP address to view its feed.
How to protect and hide your IP address
Securing your IP address can help mitigate the risk of cyberthreats and prevent any resulting losses of service or downtime. Some of the most common tools used to protect IP addresses include proxy servers, firewalls, and VPNs.
One way to protect your location information is by using a proxy server as an intermediary between your device and the Internet. A proxy server offers a layer of protection by running your traffic through its network before sending it to the Internet. This keeps anyone from seeing your IP address since the proxy server’s IP address is given in its place.
Another kind of proxy server commonly used by businesses and organizations like schools and churches is known as a forward proxy server. Forward proxy servers block traffic to specific websites that the organization doesn’t want users to access. This might include anything from time-wasting sites like social media platforms to adult or explicit content that regular users or employees shouldn’t be using.
In these situations, traffic from the organization is routed through the forward proxy server before website access is granted. Any websites that are blocked within the forward proxy will not be sent back to the end-user. Instead, they’ll see a message informing them the page has been blocked.
A firewall is another type of protection designed to keep your IP address secure. Unlike proxy servers, firewalls don’t hide your IP address. Instead, they place a software defense between your Internet connection and the rest of your computer, blocking unauthorized users and systems from accessing your sensitive data.
The firewall acts as a form of perimeter security, stopping hackers before they can access your network. For example, if you use a router to access your network, the device may have a firewall built in that you just set up and deploy.
A virtual private network (VPN) is a software-based network that encrypts your data and hides your IP address as you use the Internet. While they function similarly to proxy servers, VPNs provide a higher level of security — protecting your passwords, usernames, and any other details you input online.
When using a VPN, your data is sent to the VPN first to be encrypted before being sent to any websites. It also encrypts any data sent from the website back to you before it can reach your device.
If you’re very concerned with the safety of your data and protecting your privacy, using a VPN is a great way to defend yourself against cyber threats. Still, protecting your IP address is just the tip of the iceberg if you want to keep your devices and data safe. To learn more, check out our Introduction to Cybersecurity course.