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Calculating by IP – how the imperfection of the geolocation database five years poisoned the life of a family in South Africa

Strangers with strange requests began to come to the house of John in 2013, demanding to let them in. Nobody imagined that this is associated with an IP address.

The backyard of the house of John, who became a kind of beacon for intruders Here and hereinafter photo by Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo

39-year-old John and his 73-year-old mother Anna (their names are not mentioned) lived in a private house in the administrative capital of South Africa Pretoria for several decades before it began. In 1964, the man’s grandfather bought a cottage in a quiet and prosperous area, and this atmosphere in the house remained for almost 50 years.

In 2013, everything changed, and the owners could no longer find peace. But the reason was not a curse or a plot, but far from ideal principles of the geolocation system for IP addresses and the involuntary participation of the US Army. The story of John and Anna told the publication Gizmodo.

Unwelcome guests

The first in the long list of strangers who came to the house of John, became a private detective. He stated that a kidnapped girl was being held in the house, and refused to leave until he was let in. The son and his elderly mother did not abduct anyone, but opened the door only after the arrival of the police. Together with the patrol, the detective went around the whole house in search of the kidnapped, looking in the closets and under the bed.

But no matter how hard the man tried to convince the policeman and the owners of the house in his version, supporting her with the data of a certain “professional error-free device”, they did not believe him. He left with nothing, but others came for him. People appeared at the house in waves, sometimes seven people a month. Strangers walked around the territory or knocked on the fence, attracting the attention of the owners.

Everyone had different motives. Many blamed John and Anna for stealing phones and laptops. One day, three teenagers came to the house, believing that their internet abuser was in it. Another time, the family came, looking for a lost relative. The next time a policeman knocked on the gate, who expected to find a wanted criminal in the cottage. Then the special forces detachment followed, which made its way over the fence straight to the front door and pointed the weapon at the elderly Anna. The police explained that they were looking for stolen ipads.

The gate to the house of John, which became the main obstacle for uninvited guests

“These people come with some kind of religious zeal, believing that their belongings are in my yard. The owners [of Apple’s] technology seem worse than others, ”says John. At the end of 2018, a complaint came to his home address from the owner of a leather goods store Benna Bok. The woman accused the man of harassment on Facebook and intimidation, promising to sue. But John did not know her, and all the more he did not annoy her on the social network.

Link between John’s home and millions of IP addresses

“I had no idea what was going on. I thought that in this way the fraudsters are trying to get into the house and steal something, ”says Anna. In 2014, the house was really robbed, but at that moment the owners were in the city – the attackers took the phone, tablet and jewelry of the woman. She received the latter as a gift from her mother, who worked as a midwife assistant.

Assuming that the house somehow transmits a digital signal, John turned to his provider, the manufacturer of his modem and Apple tech support. From the latter, he expected a direct answer to the question of why the company’s clients are looking for their lost devices in his home. He was never answered.

The man began to keep a list of all the uninvited guests with the goals of their visits and showed a printout to each new person who accused him of any crimes. This went on for three years, until John contacted Gizmodo journalist Kashmir Hill. It was she who was one of the first to investigate stories that began exactly like that of John and his mother. The girl immediately put the man on the trail – MaxMind has to look for the cause of the problem

John’s mother is Anna, who works as a nurse at a local hospital. The man himself chose not to be photographed

So called company, founded in 2002 in Massachusetts. She set a goal to collect as many IP addresses as possible and create a database with their geo-referencing. The company achieved this in various ways: sending cars that traveled to cities and registered IP addresses and GPS coordinates of open Wi-Fi points, or bought the necessary information from the authors of telephone applications.

All this allowed MaxMind to create a GeoIP database for geolocation by IP address. Clients of such services are often advertisers who use it for more successful targeting, traffic analysis and other things. Simply put, based on the accumulated GeoIP database, an approximate geographical location of a specific IP address can be assumed.

But all this is not an exact science. Sometimes the service can report only the country, region or city. To display such incomplete data on the map, MaxMind determines the coordinates of each conditional city or country. Usually, a label with these coordinates is located in the center of the country — for example, in Russia, the southeastern shore of Lake Vivi in ​​the Krasnoyarsk Territory is considered the geographical center.

Lake Vivi Photo by  Mikhail Mitrofanov
In the US, the geographical center is located in northern Kansas – that is, every time the MaxMind service can determine only the country where the requested IP address is located, it gives the user the coordinates of the geographical center in Kansas. Due to certain conventions, MaxMind had to “simplify” a little the index of the geographical center, and he ended up on the farm by old Joyce Taylor .

By 2016, more than 90 million IP addresses were “tied” to these coordinates, thereby depriving the 84-year-old woman of rest. Dozens of people came to her house accusing her of all sorts of misdemeanors. One day, an unknown person left a broken toilet on her way to her farm. What for? No one knows, but it did not add calm.

WC in Joyce Taylor

Due to the actions of MaxMind, the private territory of Taylor became a kind of beacon for those who tried to calculate offenders by IP address. If at least one of these addresses was used by fraudsters or criminals – the MaxMind database gave out the same coordinates as the farm of the woman.

Journalist Hill got a response from the head of MaxMind, who admitted an error, after which the label was transferred to the lake near the farm by default. Over the next two years, the company changed the coordinates and other points to avoid future charges. The company also began to notify users of its IP database that the system does not offer exact, but only approximate coordinates.

However, this reform did not touch the houses of John and Anna from South Africa – millions of different IP addresses were tied to the point in the backyard of their house. Further investigation revealed that this time the fault lay not only on MaxMind, but also on the US Army.

Victory for John and the lack of a universal solution

The base of IP-addresses MaxMind is really huge, and the sources for its creation number in the hundreds. One of them is the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). It was founded in 1996 as a service to create cartographic products for the US Army, as well as for police, fire, intelligence agencies and rescuers. Using data from satellites, officers of the department made detailed maps of various regions for the military, including describing the proposed construction sites for nuclear-powered missile mines.

In 1999, the NGA provided a strategic map and satellite photos used by NATO forces in the war against Serbia. Because of the mistakes of the command, these data were misinterpreted, which led to the destruction of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the death of three people. The settlement of the conflict cost the United States more than $ 30 million, which transferred to the Chinese government and the relatives of the victims.

Over the years, NGA has accumulated a huge database that MaxMind used. The scheme is almost the same as what happened to the farm in Kansas. The company tied millions of IP addresses to a point in the backyard of the family’s home. Every time a conditional person tried to get even with the abuser on the Internet, whose IP was tied to the coordinates of John and Anna’s home, they saw a new guest on their doorstep. “Maybe my land will fit under the parking lot,” wrote John, believing that it was best for them and his mother to sell the house and move.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]John did not believe that he would convince the US federal agency to change the coordinates of his data for the sake of a family in South Africa. After all, in the end, the blame lay not only on the US Army and MaxMind, but also on people who believe that searching by IP address is an exact science.[/perfectpullquote]

“Our political geographers use medium-sized maps to indicate the coordinates of the object as close as possible to the central settlement (capital -) . In this case, [John] lives near the capital. There was absolutely no intention to place coordinates on its territory, ”NGA representatives explained their version of what happened. According to them, the agency has already faced similar complaints, but the last time they came in more than seven years ago was in 2012.

It is difficult to say why NGA cartographers indicated the coordinates of John’s backyard as the center point of the capital. The house is really located near the administrative capital of South Africa Pretoria, but this explains little. In this area, there is also a zoo, the largest shopping center in Africa, many government buildings, the famous statue of the politician Nelson Mandela and many more remarkable objects.

But John didn’t care much about subtleties – he was only thinking about whether the NGA could make concessions and move his mark away from his home. Thanks to the journalist Gizmodo, the case was resolved relatively quickly, and a month after the request, the department did change the label, indicating the coordinates of the historic Pretoria Square .

Historic Pretoria Square, where a monument to former South African President Paul Kruger is erected

MaxMind also entered the position, but moved her pointer to the nearest lake. Two years after the company encountered this problem, it is still looking for a universal solution. But this is unlikely to change the situation globally. The main difficulty lies not in the shortcomings in MaxMind, but in the incorrect interaction of databases.

NGA provides a free database without any rules for its use. MaxMind takes the coordinates for its base from there and assigns them IP addresses. Then, sites that offer geolocation by IP, and mobile operators that provide the “Find My Phone” services, display these coordinates on maps as separate locations. That’s just often users do not explain how this technology works, and do not show the radius of the location accuracy.

As a result – the victims of thefts, police, detectives, special services and many others find themselves on the doorstep of random people like John and Anna. And no one can understand how it happened. Thanks to the hard work of journalists, John and Anna, most likely, after five years, finally found peace. However, it is difficult to say how many people in the world are victims of the problem.

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