MaxMind is a local (Waltham) tech company that provides IP intelligence. Through MaxMind data, which maps an IP address to a true or, failing that, approximate physical address, its customers can:
…locate their Internet visitors and show them relevant content and ads, perform analytics, enforce digital rights, and efficiently route Internet traffic. (Source: MaxMind)
So if I’m caught searching for, say, odd-flavored Oreos – there’s now a limited edition version with Swedish Fish filling, which is where even I draw the line – a store selling them near my zip code could pop an ad up (which I would ignore, of course), letting me know that I could get my fill there. (This example won’t happen because Swedish Fish Oreos are available only at Kroger’s, and we don’t have Kroger’s. I will note that the company’s founder, Barney Kroger, used as his mantra: “Be particular. Never sell anything you would not want yourself.” That may have worked in 1883, when there were a lot fewer items to be had in any grocery store. Can you imagine any grocery chain sticking to that nowadays? How many people are there who’d want Swedish Fish Oreos for themselves?)
There is, of course, no privacy these days. Which is sometimes a good thing, as it helps catch kiddie porn consumers and other bad guys, but is often a bad thing, as when you’re a completely innocent browser getting bull’s-eye targeted with “relevant content and ads.”
But data mining and targeting are all the rager these days, so I suspect that MaxMind’s business is doing well.
The company’s technology is not without its problems, however. And one of those problems was what to do with the 600 million IP addresses – the string of numbers associated with every device you own that connects to the Internet – that they couldn’t get a pinpoint physical address for. All MaxMind knew was that those addresses were in the US.
So why not pick a coordinate that’s more or less the dead center of the continental United States. Plunk those IP addresses in the middle of Kansas. Flyover-ville. Cornfields.
Unfortunately, MaxMind neglected to ask themselves the Kansas question “Is there anybody there? Anybody at all?”
Turns out that there is someone out there. Why, it’s James and Theresa Arnold, who rent a farmhouse near Potwin, Kansas, population 449. And those 600 IP addresses are mapped to their front yard.
Which would probably be fine with the Arnolds – who cares, they’re barely Internet users themselves - if there weren’t some disturbing byproducts to the mapping.
Officers would show up, accusing them of harboring runaway children. Of keeping girls in the house to make pornographic films. Ambulances appeared, prepared to save suicidal persons. FBI agents, federal marshals and IRS collectors have all appeared on their doorstep. So have angry Internet users, who claimed they were ripped off by the Arnolds. (Source: Boston Globe)
All of this has been a shock to the Arnolds’ system. So they’re suing MaxMind “for turning their pastoral home into a digital age horror story.” They’ asking for $75K in ‘‘compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $75,000,’’ ‘‘plus their costs.
Having checked out MaxMind, I can say that they look like a good little company. Even factoring in my favorable bias towards local tech companies that are doing something completely nerdly, they look like a good little company. (Factoring out my negative bias towards anything that contributes to the death spiral of any privacy whatsoever. Of course, MaxMind didn’t invent the IP address, and, of course, something’s got to tell the Internet where you are. Still, I really despise all this targeted marketing stuff. Leave me alone! Which, come to think of it, they – as in the “theys” that do target marketing – are probably already doing, given the geezerly demograhic I’m in.)
Anyway, they look like a good little company. Every job they have advertised pays $100K-plus (that’s engineering for you). They plunk half of their profits into do-gooding. They’re management team all look so brainy, earnest, interesting, smart…
So even if it does cut into the share of the profits that can go to do-gooding, they should probably settle with the Arnolds.
Meanwhile, those 600 million orphan IP addresses, with no place to call home, have been relo’d to a lake west of Wichita.
Still Kansas, but no longer the Arnolds’ front yard.
Good luck to those searching for miscreants. And lucky those who’ll be able to dodge precision marketing.