Simply put, an IP address is the identifier that allows information to be sent between devices on a network. Like your home address, it contains location information and makes devices accessible for communication.
These aren’t random addresses; they’re mathematically produced and allocated by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), a division of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). These are the same people responsible for sorting out domain names and other factors critical to internet communication.
The allocation of these addresses isn’t random either. IANA doesn’t directly provide you with an IP address. Instead, they allocate blocks of numbers to different regions. For example, the United States has a reported 1,541,605,760 addresses allocated to it, which is about 36 percent of all the IP addresses available (at least, under IPv4, as opposed to IPv6, but that’s a story for another time). Meanwhile, the Vatican has a mere 17,920 addresses. This is probably more than you will ever need to know about IP addresses, but you can now impress your friends with these handy factoids about Papal networks.
Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe
Because there’s a finite number of IP addresses (4,294,967,296, under IPv4) and only so many available by location, mere mortals like you and me generally don’t have to worry about our IP addresses. Our ISPs assign them to us (and sometimes revoke and recycle them), our routers use them, and we continue happily along—until we need to change something.
Although very few of us are actually in charge of our own IP addresses, there are some ways to force a change. Search the internet and you find all sorts of arcane command-line magic words that will, allegedly, get you a new address. There are even some websites that can do the same. You can also disconnect your modem for a period of time, and see if your ISP assigns you a new address when you come back online. Or you can call your ISP directly and ask for a new address, but that might lead to some tedious questions.
Instead of changing your IP, it’s probably easier to simply hide it.
Hide in Plain Sight, Use a VPN
When you point your browser to a website, a request leaves your computer, heads off to the server where the website lives, and returns with the information you’ve requested. Along the way, location and identifying information is exchanged and, sometimes, intercepted by attackers, snoopers, advertisers, and nosey government agencies.
With a virtual private network, or VPN, another layer is added to the equation. Instead of contacting a website’s servers directly, the VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between you and the VPN service’s server, which in turn connects to the public internet and retrieves the information you requested as normal. This passes back through the tunnel to your computer, ensuring that no one can intercept your web traffic, and that an observer will see the IP address of the VPN and not yours.