A Kansas family has sued a digital mapping company over a default setting that made their farm a frequent target for criminal suspicion over the years.
Imagine having a constant stream of inexplicable and upsetting visitors to your house: cops looking for child pornographers; U.S. marshals looking for fugitives; responders rushing to the aid of suicidal people; sheriffs tracking down stolen vehicles. Incidents like this happened repeatedly to James and Theresa Arnold at the Kansas farmhouse they rented from Joyce Vogelman Taylor. The visits were baffling and constant, and they had no idea why they were being targeted as the perpetrators of so many crimes—until a journalist for Fusion discovered the issue.
The company MaxMind makes digital maps of IP addresses, tracking down the geolocation of Internet usage. It’s a difficult practice, and when an exact address can’t be found, the software defaults to a generic location: in this case, the Taylor farm, which is located roughly in the center of the U.S. Over time, the company’s services mapped 600 million IP addresses to the property.
When the default location was programmed, MaxMind’s cofounder Thomas Mather told Fusion, “we picked a latitude and longitude that was in the center of the country, and it didn’t occur to us that people would use the database to attempt to locate people down to a household level. We have always advertised the database as determining the location down to a city or zip code level. To my knowledge, we have never claimed that our database could be used to locate a household.”
The company has since shifted the default location to the center of a lake near Wichita, and has declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
The Arnolds are seeking “compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $75,000,” according to the lawsuit. “My clients have been through digital hell,” their attorney Randall Rathbun told the Guardian. “The most vile accusations have been made against them—such as that they’ve been involved in child pornography. What impact would it have on your life if someone accused you of being in child pornography? Obviously it’s horrendous.”