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Your digital identity - IP Address and Networks

When you think about your identity, I'm sure you can think of a few factors. Your age, your height and weight, your family history, these are all factors that help you determine who you are. In the digital world, we also have an identity.

Have you ever wondered how Google maps has accurate traffic data? They're monitoring Android devices (Google's OS for phones) and their locations and speeds. Or have you wondered how targeted ads seem to appear after talking with a friend about certain topics? Google tracks all the people you've been near physically and pushes ads based on YOUR FRIEND'S search history.

Google, as well as many other brands, have a profile on you. They have your name, your age, your interests (based on your activity), your location history, and more. A good portion of places that collect data like this has SOME opt-out settings but not all. This is all to target advertisements to you. The Terms of Service (you know, all that legal information that you have to accept before you can use most things online?) are usually consent forms to sell your data to advertisers so they can better target you.

These digital identities are tied to your Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is a unique number identifier from your Internet Service Provider or cellphone parent company assigned to your network (usually your router). Geographic location often defines a computer network. These comprise of two or more computers that are connected either by cables (wired) or WiFi (wireless) with the purpose of sharing data and resources. For example, a LAN (local area network) connects computers in a defined physical space, like an office building or your home, while a WAN (wide area network) can connect computers across continents. The internet is the largest example of a WAN, connecting billions of computers worldwide. An IP address is used by modern-day companies to target consumers on a specific internet network via geofencing (or targeting users by their location and network data), sending advertisements to the IP addresses connecting to that network.

The reason this matters is not necessarily that there's people selling you something. What matters is important, critical information related to you and your profile, all connected with location info and your IP address, is being sold to third-parties who may not be secure and open to leaks. Sometimes, even big name companies like Meta (Facebook and Instagram's parent company) will have breaches that affect half of a billion users (or 500,000,000 people). 

(Pictured: The digital identities of entities, devices, people, and things and how they connect to the outer world.)

Your digital identity is connected to your entire life, depending on how frivolously you hand out your information. I tend to be more on the reserved side, but critical tasks like banking and shopping are still something I do online. These are connected to my digital profile, but because I opted out of targeted ads through Google, the biggest advertiser in the world can't use that data and sell it to people. They still have it and it's still vulnerable to a breach, but at least it's a little safer than before.

Due to the laissez faire attitude the powers of the world have about the internet, there isn't much regulation surrounding these monopolies and the sheer amount of information they hold. Frankly, I'm not sure the current leaders (at least in America) know much about the internet at all. Sure, they know it exists and that there's advertisements there, but there's no restrictions on ad space or safeguards to stop hate-speech. They don't address how search engines are devolving over who can pay the most for ad slots. Hell, half of them don't even know what an IP address is.

So far, it's been up to the individual to keep themselves safe.

Your IP address changes based on your network. If you reset your router, there's a good chance your IP will change. If you switch ISPs, you'll also get a new IP. Sometimes, companies will change your address upon request or have a dynamic IP address that changes after a certain amount of time.

So if your IP address changes all the time, why does it matter who has it?

Lately, many advertisers have begun embedding tracking programs in online articles and sites. These trackers record your IP address and send you targeted ads based on your browsing. An IP address also indicates what city you’re in. Once someone knows that, they may also be able to poke around online and find your actual address. If they have IP addresses, it’s usually pretty easy to know which houses to hit. A skilled hacker can use your IP address to impersonate you online, routing activity through your address instead of their own. They can also use your IP address for phishing scams against your ISP in an attempt to get your personal information. Given enough info, they can steal your identity and use your name to apply for loans, credit cards, and other services.

Not everyone wants to use your IP address for illegal purposes - many employers will try to track your activities through your IP addresses, especially when connected on their network. In fact, other public networks like hotels and cafes can also see your web activity. While not illegal, it IS an invasion of privacy that leaves you open to potential reprimand or issues with staff.

If you plan on downloading any, ahem, freeware that probably shouldn't be free... It's best to keep your ISP out of your browsing. It's actually best if no one sees it at all. The best thing that could happen is your ISP blocks you out of your network for violating its terms of service. The worst case is that authorities get involved.

To understand how to better protect ourselves, we need to understand what the internet actually is - and how it works - as well as who provides it and what the dangers are. In the next lesson, let's dive into what makes the web the way it is.

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