The question of your Internet Protocol address (IP address) has once again hit the headlines in an anti-terrorism and security bill due to be published on 26th November 2014.
Theresa May, Home Secretary and the police want your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to store your IP address for 12 months to help in the fight against terrorism. Does the threat warrant introduction of this new power? Privacy and liberties groups would have you believe not, and raise concerns that this is simply a stepping stone back to the dead and buried “snooper’s charter”.
So what is your IP address?
Every time you go online your ISP or mobile provider will log you on with a unique number called an IP Address. It does this to correctly route the Internet traffic, such as images and text, between your device and the site you are visiting. You can see your IP address here (opens in new window).
This number can be stored by the site you are visiting and also by the ISP you are connecting through, be it at home, work, via your mobile, an Internet cafe, your friend’s home, even through a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The sharing problem
But herein lies the problem for the Government. The chances are that you are actually sharing an IP address with many others. This may be a just a handful of people, perhaps your own family. Or it could be many, many others, particularly if you work for a large organisation or are online in an Internet cafe. This is where it gets a little more complicated.
If you use broadband, then it is likely that you use a router to connect your computer or mobile device (assuming Wi-Fi connection) to the Internet. It is actually your router which is assigned an IP address, not your computer or mobile . It is assigned when it connects – that is, started or rebooted. However, behind the router may be one or more computers, mobiles, including games consoles and other devices, all sharing that same Internet router IP address.
What information is revealed by your router’s IP?
Not much really. It’s only in combination with other pieces of information that it can become really useful. So what can be gleaned?
The geographic location of your router sometimes down to town level or smaller. It’s sometimes the location of the telephone exchange your broadband is connected to but it really depends on how your ISP has configured its network. Note, that this will not be your own postal address.
Each ISP has a range of numbers they use or reuse. The ISP can usually be determined from the range of IP addresses used.
So what will the police be able to determine from your IP Address?
Suppose you posted a threat to kill on a social media site. A request could be made to the website to determine the IP address of the poster. Once the IP address is provided, then they can determine which ISP was used. With the new law in place, they will be able to make a request to the ISP to obtain the postal address of the bill payer and to what telephone line the connection was made. Notice I say connection. Sitting behind that connection may be a family, or a house full of students all using the same can u order adipex online router, all with different devices.
To determine which computer or mobile sitting behind that router made the post can be quite tricky. Accessing a website will usually leave a footprint on your computer with a time stamp. But of course, the device itself could have been shared, or have been compromised, making detection and proof of who actually made the post really quite difficult. Other information may be required to build a case.
It should be noted, that the police are able to take these steps right now if the website and ISP have the data to hand over. The new law will just make it compulsory for the ISP to do so.
So if you are prone to trolling or other Internet crimes, then this Bill is going to increase your chances of getting caught. We will have to wait and see though, as to whether the collection of IP addresses will increase the chances of foiling a terrorist plot. There are myriad ways of hiding or disguising your IP address and if you are serious about your crime, then this measure is not likely to cause you great concern.
Is it an invasion of privacy?
Yes absolutely. Any tracking should be considered an invasion of your privacy. Should you be concerned? Perhaps you should. The Internet is used for all kinds of non-criminal activities which could, by some, be viewed as indicators of particular behaviour. For example, the viewing of multiple online horror movies when combined with other information about you could give rise to an alternative view of your character. So too, the viewing of particular types of pornographic or “hook-up” websites. The fear is that your online behaviour may fit some criminal profile, rendering you worthy of further investigation.
At the moment, it is unknown to what level of detail the ISP will be asked to store and combine data. We don’t know if the police are intending to store the data, once provided, to enable future ad-hoc queries. For example, by combining your user details and profile information you may have given to your ISP when signing up, such as age, sex etc, it would be possible to run a query that asked for all males aged 25-35 accessing a particular site between these dates living in the Manchester area. We also don’t know if the police may be able to request, store and analyse terms you have searched for.
The big question then is whether the request for information from an ISP will be restricted to the police only being able to request a single name and address from a given single IP address.
Another nail in the coffin?
This view though should be balanced against the new opportunity to assist in solving other crime, and not just terrorism. Interestingly, this measure is being cautiously greeted by those that previously voiced opinion against it, notably the Tory MP and Civil Liberties campaigner David Davis MP who said it was a “sensible change”. Cynics though, would be concerned that the government is taking advantage of the fear of terrorism to provide legitimate argument to increase levels of surveillance of its population. Once the law is passed, it would pass into general acceptance and another nail in coffin for our privacy.