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Can a Gmail Account Be Traced?

by Laurel Storm
Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images

Free webmail services such as Gmail make it easy to create an email address without providing any personal data, so you might think that anything you do with that Gmail account cannot be traced back to you. While this is somewhat true, the reality is not that simple -- whether your Gmail account can be traced depends on who is attempting the tracing and how you use the account.

Webmail

When you log in to Gmail through the Web interface and send an email, the only information added to the email headers concerning the sender references Gmail's own servers. Anybody attempting to trace the origin of such an email using widely available tools would get that information and nothing more. At any point, however, Google may decide to add information to email headers about the IP address of the computer you used to log in to Gmail -- at which point anybody attempting to trace the origin of an email you sent would see your IP address.

POP3 and IMAP

Standalone email programs, such as Outlook and Thunderbird, normally add the IP address of the computer you were using when you sent an email to the email's headers. If you access Gmail through either POP3 or IMAP using such a program, anybody attempting to trace the origin of an email you sent would see your IP address.

IP Address Tracing

Even with knowing the real IP address the email was sent from, it is unlikely that you will be traced as the owner of that Gmail account. At best, the IP address will point to the service provider you get Internet access from; getting any further usually requires the ISP's cooperation. The person attempting to trace the email might be able to guess at your identity through corroborating data, however -- for example, if you have posted on a forum that publicly displays IP addresses shortly before or after you sent the email.

Law Enforcement

Most situations in which you are likely to send an email somebody might want to trace -- playing a prank on a friend, for example -- are unlikely to be of interest to law enforcement. You should, however, be aware that law enforcement and government agencies have the ability to request user information from both Google and ISPs, and can force them to reveal such information through subpoenas, court orders or search warrants.

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