The world of internet protocol – or IP – addresses can be confusing to a beginner. Public and private, IPv4 and IPv6, shared addresses among mobile networks, fourth octets… Each of these technical attributes has its own rules and exceptions.
The principle underpinning the use of IP addresses is that every web-enabled device has a unique profile. This allows other hardware to correctly identify that machine and send information requests to the right place. You can think of an IP address as the digital equivalent of a PO Box. It doesn’t necessarily reveal personal information about the user, but it does provide a safe and dependable location for correspondence.
There are a number of reasons why a website administrator or private individual might want to trace IP address activity, or track a particular address:
- Building sales leads. Companies with valuable or exclusive products need to optimise every enquiry. If someone spends twenty minutes on a website but doesn’t get in touch or make a purchase, it may be helpful to monitor future activity from that address. Visitors from a particular country could be greeted with a friendly message asking if they’d like the site displayed in their own language, for instance.
- Monitoring site activity. When planning a new or revised website, it’s crucial to know how people interact with the existing site. Which pages do they visit, in what order, and for how long? Identifying specific IP addresses can clarify this, enabling companies to optimise any redesign in response to how the existing site is being used. This could also be of use for future sales and marketing campaigns; if half your web traffic abandons your site on the Costs page, perhaps the listed prices are too high.
- Investigating website visitors. Let’s say you run a private detective agency, or provide a service where it’s important to monitor the people studying you. If a particular IP address begins making semi-regular visits, knowing who they are could be significant to any investigation or future activity.
- Identifying fraud. There may be cause for suspicion if an IP address in Africa is used to purchase three laptops from an electrical retailer in Britain. In addition, it’s sometimes possible to identify hacking attempts or click fraud through IP activity.
Despite various other legitimate reasons why companies or individuals may want to trace IP address activity, this isn’t a widely available service. Google Analytics forbids IP tracking within its terms of service, and the European Union declared IP addresses to be personally identifiable information a decade ago. While addresses for portable devices change according to which network they’re on, a desktop PC with the same ISP could provide fairly specific information about its user over a long time period.
If the need to trace IP addresses is important, these are some of the best ways to go about it:
- Command prompt. Known as Terminal on a Mac, this throwback to the pre-Windows era of text-based computer commands can send a ping (or tiny data packet) to a particular website address. Within a second or two, this will trace IP addresses and display them beside the website name.
- Web searches. Having established an IP address, more information about that location can be requested through a site that looks up IP data or handles geolocation. Enter the IP address, and publicly available information will be supplied. Do remember that results may vary, depending on where you (and the address being pinged) are located.
- Email. Each email sent and received has identifying information buried within its header text that precedes the message’s actual content. While these headers can contain a lot of information, the IP address should appear somewhere.
- Dedicated tools. Services like NetStat can identify IP addresses of remote devices, as well as providing further information about connections. However, some of the free tools advertised as IP trackers may themselves be suspect or malicious in nature, so install them with caution. There are plenty of malware-infected applications out in cyberspace…