My Address Is None.Of.Your.Business

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-01-22 Print this article Print

Opinion: The EU may be poised to rule that IP addresses are personal data and need to be treated as such. The implications could be problematic.

Everyone believes in privacy (except Scott McNealy); we just differ on how much is the right amount. It is possible to go too far in advocating for privacy. That way lies uncertainty.

This seems to be the fate of the European Union, whose Data Privacy Commission leader recently said that IP addresses are personal data when they are used to identify people. This is an example of privacy priorities run amok.

It's 25 years now since TCP/IP became the protocol of the Internet (actually it was the Arpanet at the time), and in all that time tools and systems have been developed that begin with the assumption that IP addresses want to be found and want to be identified. For instance, as the article about the EU I linked to notes, "whois" services have developed to identify owners of IP addresses. This is a good thing.

I'm on the Verizon FiOS network here, and I ran my outside IP address on the whois service provided by ARIN (the American Registry for Internet Numbers, the body responsible for allocating IP addresses in the United States, Canada, a number of Caribbean and Pacific islands, and Antarctica). Here's what it shows:

OrgName: Verizon Internet Services Inc.
Address: 1880 Campus Commons Dr
City: Reston
StateProv: VA
PostalCode: 20191
Country: US

NetRange: -
NetType: Direct Allocation
NameServer: NS2.VERIZON.
NameServer: NS4.VERIZON.
RegDate: 2005-06-01
Updated: 2006-12-29

OrgAbuseHandle: VISAB-ARIN
OrgAbuseName: VIS Abuse
OrgAbusePhone: +1-214-513-6711

OrgTechHandle: ZV20-ARIN
OrgTechName: Verizon Internet Services

# ARIN WHOIS database, last updated 2008-01-21 19:10
# Enter ? for additional hints on searching ARIN's WHOIS database.

Like domain name whois information, the point of this is to allow others on the network to make contact for official purposes, such as to notify them of security problems emanating from that network. The answer above doesn't identify me; it identifies my ISP and says a little something about how its network is configured. Of course, for almost all individual users this information will relate to their ISP as opposed to themselves.

You can identify me further by looking up my reverse DNS-in Windows go to the command line and enter "NSLOOKUP <IP address>." The reverse DNS is a unique name that corresponds to that one address. Sometimes there are things you can infer about a user from the name, but usually it's no more informative than the IP address itself.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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