A home-invasion: The clandestine motives behind IP address targeting

IP address targeting, personal data
© Alexander Horner

Most are aware that as our time spent online has increased, so has companies’ access to our personal data: What is the truth behind IP address targeting?

Lesser known is the way this data can be used to manipulate critical decisions such as the way we vote, our financial decisions and even the schools we pick for our children.

In the wake of telecoms like T-Mobile coming under-fire for their selling of user location data, it is time we examined how location data can be used to manipulate our thoughts and actions through methods such as IP address targeting.

What is IP address targeting?

This method of targeting uses an individual’s specific IP address to serve them tailored ads at home or at work. All that is needed to work out a users IP address is their street address, meaning anyone you have provided with this data has the means to target you.

Worryingly, companies you have never given your personal data to can still get hold of it through third-party data companies. These data brokers have no problem passing on your personal information to anyone willing to pay the right price.

Why should I be concerned?

While IP address targeting does have the potential to show you ads you have a genuine interest in, the fact it can take place without your knowledge or consent by companies you have no involvement with raises red flags about our privacy and data usage.

It also raises concerns on the intentions behind campaigns which use these particularly invasive methods of targeting.

Political advocacy marketing service CampaignNow claims that the top industry using IP targeting is politics. This may seem surprising until you consider the potential advantages of being able to target voters at home.

For instance, IP targeting enables politicians to target homes in swing seats before an upcoming election. A campaign targeted at all devices on a home’s network has the potential to influence an individual’s vote, especially when this is combined with programmatic, dynamic ads that are specifically catered towards their personal tastes and preferences.

And it is not just our political decisions that can be swayed by IP targeted ads.

Banking & finance are the second largest industry users of IP targeting, suggesting that data concerning our personal finances could be used against us. For example, credit cards and loans may be advertised to those struggling financially, manipulating their concerns to get them to make decisions that could result in unmanageable debt.

Government and Education are also listed as top users of IP targeting. This raises questions on whether government policies or specific schools may be promoted through this method, playing on private personal records and political preferences to show us highly personalised ads.

Though we are used to being targeted by programmatic ads, IP targeting is particularly sinister. Not only is it designed to target us where we are at our most vulnerable, but it relies on the circulation of our private home or work address, often without our consent.

When viewed alongside the mass number of data breaches that have occurred worldwide, this becomes even more concerning. And if our home and work address is so easily purchased, it is not hard to imagine a future where such data is used for even more nefarious practices.

How can I prevent it?

Unfortunately, it is often necessary to give companies and organisations our personal details in order to make use of their services. This leaves us open to our data being traded by third-parties and bought by others without our knowledge.

However, this does not mean we are completely helpless when it comes to IP address targeting. As well as not passing over your home address unless absolutely necessary, tools such as a VPN can stop you becoming a target.

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) grants extra security by encrypting your connection and diverting your traffic to a remote server. This server disguises your IP address and makes you appear to be in a different location, rendering any IP targeting based on your physical location obsolete.

As well as taking preventative measures, you can also request that companies share what data they have on you. In the USA, companies are largely self-regulated in regards to data protection so you will have to deal with them directly if you suspect misuse of your data. In the UK, the Data Protection Act means users can also make a complaint if they believe their data has been misused.


IP targeting has largely flown under the radar until now, but in the wake of numerous data breaches and rising concerns over data privacy, it is important to bring it to light.

Until tighter regulations are implemented regarding the use and trading of our personal data, it is important that we understand the ways we may be influenced by those who have access to it.

By remaining sceptical of the ads we are shown, and taking precautions such as using a VPN, we can ensure that any home-invasion we face from targeted ads remains fruitless.


Katherine Barnett

VPN and security researcher



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