Q: When I post information to the internet, can someone find out who I am? If someone is saying bad things about me in a forum, can I find out who that person really is? Audrey from Lexington
A: The answer to both questions is “possibly” but it would be difficult. To help you understand the difficulties involved, here are some basics: Every computer, every router, every internet-equipped refrigerator (yes, there are internet-enabled ‘fridges available now) and every Xbox connected to the Internet is assigned a unique number known as an Internet Protocol (IP) address. IP addresses consist of four numbers separated by periods and look something like 188.8.131.52.
You can discover your computer’s current IP address by visiting www.WhatIsMyIPaddress.com.
An IP address is the equivalent of a street address or a phone number for a computer or other network device on the Internet. Just as each street address and phone number uniquely identifies a building or telephone, an IP address can uniquely identify a specific computer or other network device on a network. These IP addresses are assigned by various national and international organizations and usually distributed to specific geographic regions. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) purchased a large block of addresses that they, in turn, sell or assign to you.
Your ISP assigns you an IP address every time you log on to the Internet. Your ISP records this address, the time you logged on, how long you stayed on line, what websites you visit and more. The websites you visit also collect your IP address so that there is always a trail of crumbs leading from the websites you visit back to your computer. However, no one would ever be able to follow that trail of crumbs all the way back to you unless they had a lot of help from people in high places.
As an example, my website (and all other websites, for that matter) collects your IP address every time you visit. Websites much track your IP so it will “know” where to send information when you click on something. By looking at my access logs, I can usually track your IP address down to general areas such as Huntsville or perhaps the Shoals area. I can usually tell if you are a Bellsouth or Comcast customer. I can sometimes tell if you visited my site from a TVA-owned computer but that’s usually as close as I can get to your actual identity.
On the other hand, if I really wanted to track you down, all I would need is either a court order from a judge or a friend who, coincidentally, also works for your ISP. This would have to be a very good friend who owes me a big favor since he would likely be fired for sharing such private information with someone from the outside.
If you are super-paranoid about being tracked down, there are “anonymizer” services that can be used to shield your IP address from even the most determined people. One such service is available from www.anonymizer.com.