Each object that connects to the Internet – whether it’s a computer, a fridge, a car or even a dog..

Each object that connects to the Internet – whether it’s a
computer, a fridge, a car or even a dog (the Internet of Dogs is, believe it or
not, an active area of research) – is assigned an IP or Internet Proto-col
address. Basically it’s a unique identifier. Every Internet connected device
needs one. When you visit a website, that site’s server has almost always taken
a note of your IP, which becomes a record of all the online addresses that have
visited it. But the IP address doesn’t relate to your specific computer,
because it changes when you connect at home, at work, a hotel or in a

Each object that connects to the Internet – whether it’s a
computer, a fridge, a car or even a dog (the Internet of Dogs is, believe it or
not, an active area of research) – is assigned an IP or Internet Proto-col
address. Basically it’s a unique identifier. Every Internet connected device
needs one. When you visit a website, that site’s server has almost always taken
a note of your IP, which becomes a record of all the online addresses that have
visited it. But the IP address doesn’t relate to your specific computer,
because it changes when you connect at home, at work, a hotel or in a cafe. IP
addresses aren’t tied to specific location addresses either – they often are,
but they don’t have to be, and the phone company can change your IP address.
Basically, the server that notes down your IP address has a rough idea of where
you are in the world, but no more than that.

Massachusetts-based digital mapping company MaxMind decided
it wanted to provide ‘IP intelligence’ for companies who wanted to pin down the
location of the people who were using different websites. The company battles
online fraud, and one of their services is known as IP geolocation, in essence
finding what building address goes along with an IP address. Content providers
could use this information to send letters to people who are downloading and
sharing content illegally. The police could use it to identify the location of
a computer that was involved in a crime. However, as was said above, IP
geolocation isn’t an exact science, and often it is difficult to pin an IP
address to a physical address. As technology writer Kashmir Hill explains,
‘MaxMind decided to set default locations at the city, state and country level
for when it knows only roughly where the IP address lives. If it knows only
that an IP address is somewhere in the U.S., and can’t figure out any-thing
more about where it is, it will point to the centre of the country’. If you
happen to live in the centre of the country (in the US it’s in Northern Kansas,
near the Nebraska border), this could be a big problem.James and Theresa Arnold
moved into their rented 623-acre farm in Butler County, Kansas, in March 2011.
The house gave them the privacy they craved but less than a week after they had
moved in, law officials turned up looking for a stolen vehicle. More followed.
They were accused and implicated in countless thefts, abduction plots and computer
fraud. Police showed up looking for missing persons and runaway children, and
to check on attempted suicides. They had no idea why. This went on for five
years until they read an article by Ms Hill about MaxMind. MaxMind was
identifying their property as the default spot for IPs when it knew nothing
other than it’s ‘in the US’ – their house is in the north of the state, near
the Nebraska border. Having finally found out what was happening, the couple
took to the courts. Court documents report that ‘In 2013, the Butler County
Sheriff Department ran a background check on the plaintiffs because of all the
activity taking place at the residence’, and they were receiving, ‘weekly
reports about fraud, scams, stolen Facebook accounts, missing person reports’ linked
to the home. MaxMind company founder said, ‘to my knowledge, we have never
claimed that our database could be used to locate a household’. In any case,
MaxMind has now changed the default centre points to be in the middle of a body
of water.

Questions

1 Why do you think MaxMind’s clients (the police for
instance) were not aware of the inexact nature of this service?

2 What could MaxMind do to keep the service being useful but
stop problems like this?

3 What other uses could IP geolocation be put to?

4 Should IP geolocation be an exact science? (Should
telecoms firms be forced to pin down exactly where devices are?)

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