The plot has been owned by the Vogelman family for more than a hundred years, though the current owner, Joyce Taylor née Vogelman, 82, now rents it out. The acreage is quiet and remote: a farm, a pasture, an old orchard, two barns, some hog shacks and a two-story house. It's the kind of place you move to if you want to get away from it all. The nearest neighbor is a mile away, and the closest big town has just 13,000 people. It is real, rural America; in fact, it's a two-hour drive from the exact geographical center of the United States.
But instead of being a place of respite, the people who live on Joyce Taylor's land find themselves in a technological horror story.
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.
All in all, the residents of the Taylor property have been treated like criminals for a decade. And until I called them this week, they had no idea why.
To understand what happened to the Taylor farm, you have to know a little bit about how digital cartography works in the modern era—in particular, a form of location service known as "IP mapping."
IP refers to an Internet Protocol address, which is a unique identifier assigned to a computer or a computer network. IP addresses play an essential role in computers talking to each other, and every internet-connected device needs one. The device you're using to read this article has an IP address, and when you visited this site, our servers wrote it down. So we now have a record that someone using that particular IP address read this story in our server logs. Sometimes, through some sophisticated sleuthing, you can find out more information about a specific IP address—for example, whether it's been associated with a malicious device, or where in the world it's located.
The trouble for the Taylor farm started in 2002, when a Massachusetts-based digital mapping company called MaxMind decided it wanted to provide "IP intelligence" to companies who wanted to know the geographic location of a computer to, for example, show the person using it relevant ads or to send the person a warning letter if they were pirating music or movies.
There are lots of different ways a company like MaxMind can try to figure out where an IP address is located. It can "war-drive," sending cars around the U.S. looking for open wifi networks, getting those networks' IP addresses, and recording their physical locations. It can gather information via apps on smartphones that note the GPS coordinates of the phone when it takes on a new IP address. It can look at which company owns an IP address, and then make an assumption that the IP address is linked to that company's office.
But IP mapping isn't an exact science. At its most precise, an IP address can be mapped to a house. (You can try to map your own IP address here.) At its least precise, it can be mapped only to a country. In order to deal with that imprecision, 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 anything more about where it is, it will point to the center of the country.