An hour’s drive from Wichita, Kansas, in a little town called Potwin, there is a 360-acre piece of land with a very big problem. It is real, rural America. It’s a two-hour drive from the exact geographical center of the United States. For the last decade, Taylor and her renters have been visited by all kinds of mysterious trouble. They’ve been accused of being identity thieves, spammers, scammers and fraudsters. They’ve gotten visited by FBI agents, federal marshals, IRS collectors, ambulances searching for suicidal veterans, and police officers searching for runaway children. They’ve found people scrounging around in their barn. The renters have been doxxed, their names and addresses posted on the internet by vigilantes. Once, someone left a broken toilet in the driveway as a strange, indefinite threat.
To understand what happened to the Taylor farm, you have to know a little bit about how digital cartography works in the modern era—in particular, a form of location service known as “IP mapping.” IP refers to an Internet Protocol address, which is a unique identifier assigned to a computer or a computer network. IP addresses play an essential role in computers talking to each other, and every internet-connected device needs one.
The trouble for the Taylor farm started in 2002, when a Massachusetts-based digital mapping company called MaxMind decided it wanted to provide “IP intelligence” to companies who wanted to know the geographic location of a computer. But IP mapping isn’t an exact science. At its most precise, an IP address can be mapped to a house. At its least precise, it can be mapped only to a country. In order to deal with that imprecision, MaxMind decided to set default locations at the city, state and country level for when it knows only roughly where the IP address lives. If it knows only that an IP address is somewhere in the U.S., and can’t figure out anything more about where it is, it will point to the center of the country.
For the last 14 years, every time MaxMind’s database has been queried about the location of an IP address in the United States it can’t identify, it has spit out the default location of a spot two hours away from the geographic center of the country. This happens a lot.
Amateur sleuths who spotted IP addresses used by visitors to their websites or on message forums were so convinced that the Taylor house was the source of their various problems that they created reports about it on Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, the Ripoff Report and Google Plus.
“That poor woman has been harassed for years,” Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet said. Herzet said that his department’s job has become to protect the Taylor house from other law enforcement agencies.
The physical mapping of computer addresses is one of the many aspects of the internet infrastructure that is almost completely unregulated. It is a task performed by private companies, and not just MaxMind. There are lots more of these phantom IP houses.
MaxMind will refresh its database next Tuesday. And the Taylor farm will, hopefully, be a quiet place again sometime soon.
sources: fusion.net, tech.slashdot.org; huffingtonpost.com