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What is an IP address, how do you determine it and why do you need it?
You've probably heard a few similar stories: some schoolboy received abusive messages from an unknown Internet user. There was no information on his profile: no name, no surname, no city of residence, but the authorities tracked him down with the help of the IP address. The same is true for major piracy scams - all illegal online activity can easily lead to its instigator via an IP address.
But what is an IP address? And what if you use a VPN or "incognito" mode in your browser? To answer these macro questions, we need to dive into the micro-technical characteristics.
What is an IP address?
In simple terms, an IP address (short for "Internet Protocol") is a unique identifier for your device. Not only computers have it, but also tablets and smartphones. And just like a fingerprint, no two IP addresses are the same.
Of course, there are standards for these things, and they are set by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). There are two main types of IP addresses in use today: the fourth version of the Internet protocol, IPv4, and the new version, IPv6. The first has been around since January 1983 and is still the most common. It represents 32-bit numbers expressed in four octets, which are separated by the so-called "decimal point". For example, 192.0.2.53.
By 1999, when the commercialization of Internet access began, there were concerns that sooner or later the IANA might run out of valid IPv4 addresses. So the Internet Engineering Task Force, an international community of designers, scientists, network operators, and ISPs headquartered in Fremont, California, developed a successor to IPv4, IPv6. The new version is 128-bit numbers expressed in hexadecimal strings, such as 2001: 0db8: 582: ae33 :: 29.
Equally important is what an IP address is not. There are several analogies walking around the Internet that are misleading. The most common one is comparing an IP address to your home address. This is fundamentally incorrect, given that your home address is quite a specific and static location, whereas an IP address is often a rough estimate of your geolocation. In a 2016 white paper on the use of IP addresses in criminal investigations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation stresses that such metaphors "mischaracterize the function and reliability of IP addresses and potentially overstate the accuracy of IP address information."
When the IANA introduced IPv4 and then IPv6 protocols, developers configured the system to uniquely identify an electronic destination on the Internet rather than an exact physical location. The IANA created blocks of IP addresses, assigning them to regions around the world on a numerical rather than geographic basis.
For example, IP addresses in India and Australia fall into the same registry despite the difference in geographic location. In addition to the regional level, IP addresses can also vary by Internet service provider.
Internal and external IP address
Your external IP address is what you probably think of first when looking at that unique string of numbers associated with your Internet use. It's also the IP address that your Internet service provider assigns you, and it's in the public domain. In other words, it's the numeric address of your router's interface.
From there, the router gives your devices access to the Internet. At that point, when you open a Web site on your phone or laptop, each of those devices has its own internal IP address (private IP address), which is registered along with your browsing history.
Think of it as something like a phone line. Your company assigns you a specific phone number that makes the calls come only to you. It's an internal IP address. But the company's officially registered number, which anyone can see, is similar to your external IP address. In this analogy, your router acts as a receptionist.
What is a VPN?
In the scenario above, anyone can find a company phone number - in this case, an external IP address. And if you want to hide it, you should consider setting up a virtual private network (VPN) that will mask your external IP address and give you a new one that is not tied to your Internet service provider.
Now that most of us work from home, employers often provide employees with a corporate VPN to give them secure access to the company's internal network and data.
How to determine your IP address
Regardless of the device and software you use to determine your IP address, you must go to your Wi-Fi or Ethernet settings. Below you will find recommendations on how to do this on four types of devices.
The fastest way is the Google feature. Just click on this link and Google will display your IP address at the top of the search results page. Also, to find out your IP you can use one of the ways below.
On Windows 10 PCs. From the taskbar, click Wi-Fi or Ethernet > select the network you're currently connected to > click Properties. Your IP address will be listed next to "IPv4 address."
On Mac. Open "System Preferences" > "Network" > select Wi-Fi or Ethernet, depending on your connection. Your IP address will show up in the open window, right below your connection status.
On your Android smartphone or tablet. Go to Settings > Wireless Networks (or Network and Internet) > select the Wi-Fi network you are connected to. Your IP address will be listed along with other network information.
On iPhone/iPad. Open Settings > Wi-Fi > tap the network you are connected to. You will find your IP address on the right in the "IP Address" column.