The House With 600 million IP Addresses

As a marketing technology company, we get excited about some very odd things. Like IP addresses. These codes, which allow computers to talk to each other, are a little-appreciated but hugely important element of our connected world. So, when we stumbled upon the story of a house in the United States which has 600 million IP addresses associated with it, we thought it was worth a look!

The story is rooted in the drive for personalisation, the desire to cut through the noise of modern marketing and advertising by making offerings as relevant and tailored as possible. It serves as a cautionary tale of how technology develops, and how tools can be used in ways far different than what their creators envisaged.

How did it start?

In essence, an Internet Protocol (IP) address is a code assigned to a computer or network as an identifier. It is the basis which allows computers to talk to each other – the internet literally could not function without them.

In 2002, a company called MaxMind decided to plot the geographic locations of IP addresses, and sell the data to businesses. They expected it to be used to counter movie piracy, by allowing law enforcement to identify and contact perpetrators, or to allow companies to target their adverts by geography.

Unfortunately, mapping IP addresses is not an exact science. One method involves checking what company owns an IP address and linking it with that company’s physical office, which involves a certain level of optimism. Or you can roam the world looking for open Wi-Fi networks, noting the location where you are able to connect to them.

Which road is paved with good intentions?

Fortunately, MaxMind recognised the limitations of the exercise, and designated default addresses at city, state and national levels. In the case of the overall United States, they poetically decided that the default address should be the centre of the country, 39°50′N 98°35′W. In digital format, this translates to 39.8333333,-98.585522. For neatness, this was rounded off to 38°N 97°W or 38.0000,-97.0000.

Put these coordinates into Google Maps, and you end up in Potwin, Kansas. Just outside the front door belonging to the Taylor family.

This means that any time since 2002, if the MaxMind database has been unable to say nothing more about an IP address than that it is in the USA, it has spit out the Taylor’s address. This is a big deal: MaxMind’s data is used by over 5000 companies, including Google and Facebook. Even law enforcement agencies have relied on this data, using it to search for everything from misplaced laptops to highly-organised hacking groups. This has meant the house has been visited by FBI agents, disgruntled eBay buyers and everyone in between.

Happily ever after?

When MaxMind were made aware of this, they admitted it had never occurred to them that the data might be used to track individuals so precisely. That had certainly not been their intention when they set out to gather the data. As a result of their decisions around defaults, there are certainly other examples of addresses with an inordinate number of IP addresses, though the Taylor case is surely the most extreme.

As we only work with UK-based companies, we’re pretty sure we’ve never contacted an IP address in Potwin, Kansas, USA, but what a fascinating story of a technology which we all use but seldom think much about!

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