Business & Tech

How a quiet Kansas home wound up with 600 million IP addresses

WASHINGTON — A two-hour drive from the geographic center of the United States sits a quiet farmhouse near Potwin, Kan. Joyce Vogelman Taylor’s grandfather built it in 1902, and her father spent 85 years living in it.

She remembered a moment in 1942 when he purchased a Delco electric generator, light bulbs, and a toaster — a massive technological upgrade.

More than 70 years later, technology made the 82-year-old’s life — and those of her renters, James and Theresa Arnold — a digital age horror story.

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For reasons to be explained, the little house became the crossroads of the Internet, with unimaginable consequences. The discovery was made by Kasmir Hill of Fusion, who broke the story in April.

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Last week, the Arnolds filed a federal lawsuit against MaxMind, a digital company that maps IP addresses.

The first time Taylor realized something was amiss was when she received a call in 2011 from the owner of a small business who angrily blamed her for his customers’ e-mail problems.

The conversation shocked Taylor. She owned a Gateway computer, which she used almost like a typewriter, composing Sunday school lessons and letters. She barely browsed the Internet, much less used it to overload a small business’s e-mail servers.

‘‘The first call I got was from Connecticut,’’ Taylor told Fusion. ‘‘It was a man who was furious because his business Internet was overwhelmed with e-mails. His customers couldn’t use their e-mail. He said it was the fault of the address at the farm. That’s when I became aware that something was going on.’’

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Then complaints started pouring in, with distressing and sometimes criminal accusations aimed at the Arnolds, the Wichita Eagle reported.

In May 2011, police and sheriff’s officers knocked on their door, looking for a stolen truck.

‘‘This scenario repeated itself countless times over the next five years,’’ the lawsuit stated.

Officers would show up, accusing them of harboring runaway children. Of keeping girls in the house to make pornographic films. Ambulances appeared, prepared to save suicidal persons. FBI agents, federal marshals, and IRS collectors have all appeared on their doorstep. So have angry Internet users, who claimed they were ripped off by the Arnolds.

‘‘Law enforcement officials came to the residence all hours of the day or night,’’ the lawsuit stated.

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At least once, the Arnolds were doxxed, meaning hackers posted their names and personal details onlilne.

Max-Mind has now shifted its default ‘United States’ location to the center of a lake, west of Wichita.

One day, a broken toilet was left in the driveway, without explanation.

Neither the Arnolds nor Taylor had any idea of what was happening.

The genesis of what actually happened was in 2002, when 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 technology 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 that an IP address was in the United States. In those cases, the company mapped that address to a specific set of coordinates: 38 degrees N, 97 degrees 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.

More than 600 million IP addresses were mapped to that yard.

And no one connected with the farmhouse knew this until Fusion’s reporter Kasmir Hill, who had been investigating the practice of mapping IP addresses, searched through MaxMind’s database, discovered the 600 million IP addresses at the Kansas location, and gave Taylor, the owner, a call.