Can the police track you via your IP address?

Written 18th April 2024 by Ruth Peters

In today’s digitally connected world, our online activities leave behind a trail of digital footprints that can be tracked and monitored. Among the various methods of digital surveillance, tracking individuals via IP addresses is a common practice employed by police forces.

At Olliers we are frequently contacted by clients who inform us that police have attended at their home address with a warrant to search and seize their electronic devices as a result of ‘intelligence from their IP address’.  Frequently this is in relation to investigations involving indecent images, sexual communication with a child and other allegations of online offending.

Understanding how police can track you via your IP address is crucial in understanding how this may lead to police obtaining a search warrant and seizing devices such as mobile phones and laptops for forensic analysis.

What is an IP Address?

An Internet Protocol (IP) address is a numerical label assigned to each device connected to a computer network. It serves as a unique identifier, allowing devices to communicate with each other through the internet. Every time you connect to the internet, whether it’s through a computer, smartphone, or any other internet-enabled device, you are assigned an IP address.

What is a static IP address?

A static IP address is a fixed, unchanging numerical label assigned to a device or network node on a computer network. It is manually configured and typically set by a network administrator.

What is a dynamic IP address?

Dynamic IP addresses, are assigned automatically and may change over time. When a device connects to a network, such as the internet, it is assigned a dynamic IP address from a pool of available addresses by a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server. This assignment is temporary and subject to change each time the device reconnects to the network.

Can police track you via your IP address?

Yes, police can track IP addresses. ISPs can associate an IP address with a subscriber’s information through records. With a court order, police can request the ISP to provide subscriber details.

Police can utilise various methods to track individuals through their IP addresses.

Obtaining a warrant

Police can obtain warrants to compel Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to disclose information about the users associated with certain IP addresses. This information may include the subscriber’s name, address, and other identifying details.

ISPs typically maintain logs of IP addresses assigned to their customers at specific times. These logs can be accessed by police as part of their investigations. By analysing these logs, authorities can trace the online activities of individuals back to their internet connection.

IP addresses can sometimes provide geolocation data, which can help police narrow down the physical location of a device or user. While this method may not always pinpoint an exact address, it can provide valuable insights into the general vicinity of the user.

Police forces may collaborate with technology companies, social media platforms, or other online service providers to track individuals based on their IP addresses. Companies may voluntarily share user data with authorities under certain circumstances, or they may be compelled to do so by legal means.

When may tracking by IP address be difficult?

IP address tracking may not always yield accurate results, especially in cases involving dynamic IP addresses, VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), or proxy servers. Additionally, IP address geolocation data may not always be precise.

What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a technology that provides a secure and encrypted connection over a public network, typically the internet. It allows users to establish a private network connection to a remote server, encrypting all data transmitted between the user’s device and the server. This encryption ensures that even if the data is intercepted by malicious actors, it remains unreadable and secure.

How do VPNs work?

When you connect to a VPN server, all of your internet traffic is encrypted before it leaves your device. This encryption scrambles the data, making it unreadable to anyone who might intercept it. The encrypted data is then transmitted through a secure tunnel to the VPN server.

VPNs use a process called tunneling to create a private pathway for your data to travel between your device and the VPN server. This prevents your internet service provider (ISP), government agencies, or hackers from monitoring your online activities.  The VPN server acts as a middleman between your device and the internet. It assigns you a temporary IP address, which hides your true IP address from websites and online services you visit. This makes it appear as though you’re accessing the internet from the location of the VPN server.

What is a Proxy Server?

A proxy server acts as a gateway between you and the internet. It’s an intermediary server separating end users from the websites they browse. Proxy servers provide varying levels of functionality, security, and privacy depending on your use case, needs, or company policy.

If you’re using a proxy server, internet traffic flows through the proxy server on its way to the address you requested. The request then comes back through that same proxy server (there are exceptions to this rule), and then the proxy server forwards the data received from the website to you.

A proxy server is basically a computer on the internet with its own IP address that your computer knows. When you send a web request, your request goes to the proxy server first. The proxy server then makes your web request on your behalf, collects the response from the web server, and forwards you the web page data so you can see the page in your browser.

When the proxy server forwards your web requests, it can make changes to the data you send and still get you the information that you expect to see. A proxy server can change your IP address, so the web server doesn’t know exactly where you are in the world. It can encrypt your data, so your data is unreadable in transit. And lastly, a proxy server can block access to certain web pages, based on IP address.

How is intelligence provided to police?

Intelligence is often provided to police as a result of a ‘cybertip’ report. Electronic communications companies must report child sexual abuse material (a CyberTip report) to NCMEC “as soon as is reasonably practicable”. The CyberTipline is an online tool which enables the public and industry to report indecent images of children, incidents of grooming and child sex-trafficking found online.

The CyberTip report must contain information about the suspected individual responsible such as an email or IP address. A CyberTip report might contain thousands of images linked to a single account or thousands of IP addresses; the report might relate to a single person using multiple devices or relate to multiple suspects and victims. Reports to NCMEC have increased exponentially.

NCMEC’s systems analyse the CyberTip report to identify the location of the IP address and NCMEC make that information known to the relevant law enforcement agency. Where the incident/offender is based in the UK, NCMEC sends a referral to the NCA.

How does tracking of IP addresses lead to seizure of electronic devices?

Once police have been able to identify a subscriber’s information they will often apply to the Magistrates’ Court for a warrant to be able to seize electronic devices including phones laptops, hard drives, desktop PCs, and memory sticks. On other occasions they may attend and arrest an individual and then use their powers to seize devices under section 18 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

The police will then subject the electronic devices seized to forensic analysis which can take many months. This can be extremely difficult for an individual to deal with and at Olliers we are experienced at supporting those being investigated throughout this process.

Article written by Ruth Peters

While the ability of police forces to track individuals via IP addresses can be a valuable tool in criminal investigations, it also raises important questions about privacy, security, and legal oversight. As individuals, it’s crucial to be aware of how our online activities can be monitored.

The law in relation to allegations involving online offending is complex and benefits from representation by specialist solicitors. At Olliers we have significant experience of dealing with cases involving intelligence from IP addresses including indecent images, sexual communication with a child and communication offences such as harassment/stalking and malicious communications.

If you require advice in relation to a criminal investigation please contact our new enquiry team either by email to info@olliers.com, or by telephone on 020 3883 6790 (London) or 0161 834 1515 (Manchester) or by completing the form below and our new enquiry team will contact you.

Ruth Peters

Ruth Peters

Business Development Director

Manchester

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London

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