Can People Track Where You Live From an Email?

By James T Wood

Electronic mail contains information that can be used to trace its source.
i Spike Mafford/Photodisc/Getty Images

The short answer is: Yes, it is possible to find out where a person lives from an email. The longer answer is that it's very difficult, if not impossible, for someone to discover a home address from the information contained in an email without the cooperation of the Internet service provider that routed that email.

Email Headers

Every email sent contains a header that describes the content of the email, the origination address, the destination address and the route the email took to get from the origination to the destination. This information can be used to narrow down, or even pinpoint, where an email came from if the direct IP address of the sender is listed in the email header. However, if the sender used webmail, the IP address will point to the mail service rather than the local account of the sender.

Internet Protocol

Computers connected to the Internet use IP addresses to define where each computer is virtually located. When you type in a URL, the words are checked against a list of IP addresses associated with that URL and then connected to your computer. If have Internet service at your home, your ISP can identify the IP address connected to your home and your account information with it. Because of this, the one entity that can connect your email header information with your physical address is your ISP.

Legal Concerns

To force an ISP to hand over address information, law enforcement officials must produce a warrant or subpoena. Even when that's done there is no guarantee that the information on which IP address was connected to a specific person is still available. If an ISP uses dynamic IP addresses then the address changes each time a user logs in to the service. There is no law requiring the ISP to maintain a list of who has been assigned an IP address so if the warrant or subpoena is too old the information may be lost completely.

Privacy Concerns

In June of 2013 Edward Snowden revealed widespread collection of information, including email headers, by the National Security Administration. The NSA could collect the information necessary to tie an email to your home address if you don't use any kind of encryption or anonymizing software. There are various chat, email and browsing tools that provide an anonymous online experience by obfuscating the IP address path for the information sent over the Internet. While it's not a guarantee that an email won't be traced by back to your home, it makes the likelihood much lower.