I first heard about this story back in the spring by listening to the Mysterious Universe podcast, but now the Washington Post has picked it up and it serves as a cautionary tale about amateur internet sleuthing. It deals with an address in Kansas, quite close to what’s generally identified as the geographic center of the continental United States. It happens to be located outside of the town of Potwin and it’s a farmhouse rented by James and Theresa Arnold.
The residents of this farm have been the subject of countless attacks through every medium imaginable. They’ve received nasty phone calls and people have dumped trash in their driveways. Police have visited the home looking for stolen vehicles and computer equipment, kidnapped girls and evidence of illegal pornography being produced. Multiple reports of attempted suicides drew cops and ambulances to the farm. The residents have been accused of fraud and ripping off countless people.
What sort of monsters live there?
As it turns out, they weren’t involved with any of it. What happened was that the address for their home had been linked to to more than 600 million internet IP addresses.
The genesis of what actually happened was 2002, when a company called MaxMind was founded. It maps IP addresses, a notoriously unreliable practice. Many can’t be directly linked to an address, only a state or even a country.
For its tech to work, MaxMind matched each IP address to a set of coordinates. This presented a problem when the company didn’t have an exact location.
Sometimes, it could only determine than an IP address was in the U.S. In those cases, the company mapped that address to a specific set of coordinates: 38°N 97°W or, in the parlance of digital maps, 38.0000,-97.0000.
That just happens to be the front yard of the house where the Arnolds resided.
Because we live in the era of Google, everyone can be an internet sleuth. So each time someone ran into a difficult situation on the web and went to track down the perpetrators, they would seek out the physical address associated with the bad guy’s computer. Because of poor mapping of such things, any IP address which couldn’t be resolved to a physical location defaulted to the Arnolds’ farm through the MaxMind service.
I hope that the family finds a way to get this situation resolved and is compensated for the endless abuse they’ve suffered. It may not have been intentional on the part of MaxMind, but the damage that they caused was real. But at the same time, it’s a reminder that not everything you dig up on Google is accurate and your investigations can have real world consequences. I’ll just file this one under the general category of, the internet ruins everything eventually.