‘If someone has my IP address, what can they do with it?’
All of us have asked this question at some point in our lives. The fear of being hacked is ever present and we keep looking for ways to safeguard our web presence. However, there are always methods hackers can use to compromise your personal information. Remember that these hackers are no more than internet vandals. Just like a real life vandal, hackers damage others’ property for monetary gains or simply for the pleasure of it.
An individual hacker or hacking group usually targets large companies or governmental agencies. But small-time crooks can also target individuals. It could be something as simple as getting hold of your email ID or a serious act like stealing your banking credentials.
Here we look at how hackers can use your IP address to gain access to your computer.
IP Address: Your Network Marker
As you might know, each computer or device connected to the internet (or any network for that matter) is assigned an IP address. As an internet user, you need this IP address for searching information on the web, shop for stuff, communicating with other people using email and a host of other things. This IP is assigned to you (by the ISP) the moment you connect to the internet. Moreover, this IP address varies as per your location.
It is a popular myth that an IP address can be used to reveal a user’s real identity. However, if this was true and an IP could indeed be the doorway to a person’s private information, the whole internet would have been one giant mess.
Having said that, hackers can still use your IP in various ways to try and gain access to your computer. There is nothing systematic about hackers’ intent which means they always aim to mess up things. So how can your IP let hackers inside your computer?
In a computer network (also known as a TCP/IP network), the interaction between your programs and the network takes place through a group of electronic conduits. These conduits are called ports and each port is identified by a number unique to it. For a real world analogy, consider these ports as pipes via which data is transported between the network protocol software and an application that you are running.
Now every IP address is associated with a certain number of ports. These ports are important for the functioning of your computer.
Your system’s network software is the interface that brings together the applications you are running and the network they are connected to. The network software needs to know which application an incoming data packet is meant for. As an example, it must know how to direct incoming emails to your computer’s email program.
A House with Different Rooms
So now there are IP addresses – which are like an address but on your computer, ports – which are like doorways to rooms, and programs – which are akin to the rooms in a house. Now consider that your port is used to gain a backdoor entry into your house – or your computer.
Taking the analogy further, when you are running a program while being connected to the internet, a particular port remains open. This is necessary if your program needs to connect to the internet. However, a hacker having your IP can use it to access your connection. This also gives the hacker the ability to affect or engage the said program.
Sneaking In Through the Back Door
Thankfully, each program (room) is slightly insular and does not share a connecting door with other programs (rooms) running on your computer. In case hackers get hold of your IP and use it to sneak in via the backdoor and into your program, that’s all they can do.
Can this back door be blocked? This is how a firewall does its job by blocking unauthorized access through your ports.
Making Your IP Invisible
You can prevent the threat of being hacked through your IP address by making it invisible. Conceal your real IP address using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN enables you to route your traffic through a massive computer network. Further, all your communication with the network is done using a temporary IP. This ensures the hacker does not get access to your real IP address, thus preventing unauthorized connections to your computer.
To see if a VPN is working correctly, compare your IP addresses before and after switching on the VPN. If you do not know your true IP, just search for the term ‘what is My IP address’ using an internet browser of your choice. Now compare this address to the one that your VPN program displays once you turn it on. If they are different, you need not worry about being hacked using your IP address.