A Geolocation Glitch Creates a ‘Technological Horror Story’

Not every geographic database uses Null Island. When MaxMind’s geolocation database, which matches IP addresses to physical locations, can only identify an IP address’s country, it uses a default location roughly at the centre of that country. In the case of the United States, it turned out to be Joyce Taylor’s farm in Potwin, Kansas. Fusion’s Kashmir Hill has the horror story that has ensued: MaxMind’s database is used by thousands of online services, whose users mistook a default location with a precise address.

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.

As Hill’s article points out, Taylor is far from the only one to be hit by this problem. MaxMind is updating its database to correct this and one other case by moving the default location to a body of water. (I can’t help but think that we will soon start hearing stories about people driving into the lake as a result of this change.) There’s no such thing as a set of coordinates that can’t be represented precisely. What’s the solution?

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.