What is an IP address? (With definition and application)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 25 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

An IP address refers to an Internet Protocol address; it's a series of unique numbers that identify any device on a network. An IP address is an identifier that allows devices on a network to communicate, enabling them to send and receive files and information. Knowing an IP address can help you understand how computers and devices on a network recognise each other and communicate. In this article, we define what an IP address is, discuss the types of addresses, explain its purpose and illustrate how to find your IP address.

What is an IP address?

Understanding what an IP address is can clarify its role on the internet, how devices gain it and the address's structure. Typically, the protocols are numerical and numbers range from zero to 255, but some IP codes may include letters because of the internet's growth. Your internet service provider assigns you an IP address, but this unique identifier is not permanent and can change when you join a different network or switch locations.

Related: What is information technology? (With skills and careers)

Types of IP addresses

IP addresses can exist in many categories, but there are four main types: public, private, static and dynamic internet protocols. They have the same structure but differ in who assigns them, how they provide them and what devices they identify. Below is a detailed description of the main four types of IP addresses:

Public

Professionals primarily associate your public address with your home or business network. This address is what devices outside your network may use to recognise and communicate with your network devices. It's the IP address from your internet service provider and is a requirement for every publicly accessible network hardware, such as a home router. Although each device on your home or business network has an individual IP, the network includes them within its main address, the public IP.

Private

A private IP is a personal network address that your home or work router assigns to your device and any other devices you connect to it. These devices can include TVs, computers, smartphones, printers and other gadgets that can access the internet. The router generates these personal identifiers and uses them for the following purposes:

  • to recognise each of the devices and allow them to find and communicate with each other

  • to enhance security within a network, as the addresses are private and invisible to external users who may try to access the network

  • to direct information, such as search results, back to the specific device that requested them if several devices are on its network

Static

A static IP address does not change once a network assigns it to a device, user, server or website. It stays the same until a person decommissions the device or the network architecture changes. Network administrators may alter it during routine network checking. It's essential if an external device or user constantly needs to communicate to a device since networks can only remember one specific address.

Dynamic

Dynamic addresses are temporary and keep changing since the network assigns one to a device every time that device connects to the web. For example, internet service providers automatically give a local network router a large temporary pool of IP addresses before returning them to reassign later. Dynamic addresses have the following advantages:

  • fast and automatic configuration of IP addresses

  • unlimited IP addressing since you can reuse these protocols

  • security enhancement against hackers and intruders, as you have no specific address because the dynamic addresses continually change

IP address versions

Currently, two versions of IP addresses coexist on the global network but cannot directly communicate. Internet Protocol version 4 (IPV4) and Internet Protocol version 6 (IPV6). Below is a detailed description of each:

IPV4

Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) introduced IPV4 in 1981 and websites still use it. It has a size of 32 bits and can hold over 4.2 billion addresses, although reserved addresses and other considerations reduce this address pool. IPV6 evolved due to the depleting IPV4 addresses as the internet and its usage grew.

IPV6

IPV6 is the second IP version. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority launched it in 2012. It has a size of 128 bits, which allows for trillions of IP addresses. Unlike the IPV4, the typically decimal form of expression, IPV6's expression is in hexadecimal form.

How to check your IP address

There are multiple tools on the internet that can help you search your IP address and even an approximation of your location relative to the address. The simplest method to check your IP address is to search 'What is my IP address?' on a search engine, which promptly reveals an answer. You may also follow the steps below to look up your address on corresponding devices manually:

Using a PC

Do the following to check your IP address on a PC:

  1. Search for 'cmd' on Windows search to locate the command prompt.

  2. Run the command prompt.

  3. Type 'ipconfig' in the command prompt to find the address.

Using your phone

Do the following to check your IP address on a mobile device:

  1. Go to 'settings' and select ‘Network' and then ‘Internet'.

  2. Click on the ‘Wi-Fi' tab.

  3. Select the connected network to show the address and other details.

IP address security threats

Cybercriminals can use various techniques to obtain your IP address and possibly exploit it for malicious activities. An example of these methods is social engineering, where hackers may deceive you into revealing your IP address. Below is a list of potential dangers:

Online impersonation

Skilled hackers can impersonate you online by using your IP address and routing their online activity through your address instead of theirs. Authorities may then trace these illegal activities back to you. To prevent this, you can ensure that you mostly use private and well-trusted Wi-Fi connections and incorporate a VPN.

Related: 13 popular security certifications for cybersecurity roles

Trace geographic location

An IP address shows your location relative to your Internet Service Provider's location. Once a hacker has identified your city or region, they can conduct an online and social media search to reveal your actual address. Therefore, effective online security can help you make your home less vulnerable to invasion or online spying.

DoS/DDoS attack

These terms mean Denial of Service (DoS) and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), respectively. The former refers to an attack on a single device and the latter involves multiple devices. They're attacks that prevent you from accessing online resources, such as websites and emails, by flooding your IP with server requests and eventually overloading and disabling it. Both attacks may work similarly, but the DDoS attack can target your IP with more traffic.

Related: How to become an ethical hacker: a comprehensive guide

Send you personalised spam ads

Advertisers can embed IP address recording trackers in online articles to obtain your address without your knowledge. They may then use your address to access your email address and send you targeted ads based on your browsing activities. Alternatively, hackers who gain this information might sell it to an advertising company.

Steal information

When connecting to an online server, the internet uses a combination of ports and IP addresses; there can be thousands of ports for every address. A cybercriminal who knows your address can exploit these ports to connect to your phone or computer and, if the intrusion is successful, steal information. In addition, they might access gadgets and retrieve data stored there, such as pictures, bank details and credit card information.

Man-in-the-middle-attack

Users or devices accessing a remote system over the internet assume they communicate directly with the target system's server. In a man-in-the-middle attack, hackers can use your IP address to place themselves between your device and the target server. They can then intercept communication and may even access sensitive data or alter the messages users send to each other.

Track your activity

People, such as hackers, employers or even those close to you, can use your IP address to track your online activity. In doing this, they could discover which apps or sites you visited during a particular period. This activity is not inherently illegal but is still a violation of privacy.

Related: What is a time log? How to track your activity

Tips to help you protect your IP address

The following is a list of methods you can use to protect your IP address:

  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) since it assigns you an IP address no one can trace back to you.

  • Set messaging apps that use IP addresses to private, as hackers can use them to gain access to your address.

  • Use a proxy server, as they hide your IP address when you log in, even if it's in a less sophisticated way than when you use a VPN.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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