For the last decade, a remote farm in Potwin, Kansas has served as the digital center of the United States—at least in the database of a prominent IP address mapping company named MaxMind.
Whenever MaxMind was not exactly sure where in the U.S. an IP address was located, it assigned it to a latitude and longitude in middle America, which happened to be in the farm's front yard.
Because IP addresses are routinely used by law enforcement and online vigilantes to track down bad guys, that has caused all kinds of trouble for the farm, from FBI and IRS agents showing up to people on the internet writing conspiracy theories about the place. The farm's owner, Joyce Taylor, 82, had no idea what was causing her problems until I called her last week and told her what we'd uncovered in an investigation of MaxMind's database.
I also told MaxMind how its decision to make this a default location in its database had affected the people who lived on the farm. "Until you reached out to us, we were unaware that there were issues," the company's co-founder Thomas Mather told me. He said the company was going to move the default location away from the farm and into a nearby lake.
On Tuesday, the company refreshed its database. Dave Maynor, the hero-technologist who helped me investigate this story, crawled Maxmind's database to see how the data had changed. The over 620 million IP addresses that are imprecisely mapped in the MaxMind database no longer point at Joyce Taylor's farm. They point to a new default location for the United States: a lake west of Wichita, next to Pretty Prairie.
"I want to see the bill after cops dredge the lake looking for a missing person," said Maynor.
So the hell is almost over for the Kansas farm. But now the data needs to trickle down to all of Maxmind's users. "Some customers only update every few months," said Mather. For others it might be longer.
Many critics have pointed out that MaxMind should have a better system for indicating that it has very little idea where an IP address actually is, such as returning a "null" or a precision value that indicates the given location could be off by up to 3,000 miles, for example.
MaxMind says it never intended for its database to be used to drill down to a household, but some of the 5,000 companies that rely on it for their IP mapping do that anyways. One blogger pointed out that MaxMind's database reveals when it's unsure about a location, but you have to dig into the data and make some smart assumptions to realize it.
The farm in Kansas isn't the only default location with millions of IP addresses attached to it, and not the only location that's had problems. Tony Pav, who lives in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Ashburn, Virginia, also had a default location placed on his home; it was the 6th most popular location in the MaxMind database. Ashburn is home to lots of data centers, huge server farms used by big tech companies and government agencies, and as a result, there are lots of IP addresses associated with that area; 17 million of them were pointing at Pav's house, resulting in police raiding his home and lots of strange online communication.
MaxMind also changed Ashburn's default location to a lake:
The rest of the top 10 most popular default locations in the MaxMind database are mostly in places with lots of data centers: outside Palo Alto and Cupertino; in New Jersey, across the water from New York; and in Massachusetts between MIT and Harvard University. Those locations pointed to businesses or golf courses or mountain ranges before and still do.
But when Maynor previously crawled the database for me, there were thousands of other houses with an aberrant number of IP addresses associated with them. My colleague Kristen Brown and I called dozens of them, which unsurprisingly hadn't had problems, but we couldn't call them all. I asked MaxMind if it would consider moving all of its default locations to non-populated areas, like bodies of water or mountain ranges, but I haven't heard back yet.