Not many people live in Butler County Kansas. According to the 1910 U.S. Census, only about 250 people called Potwin their home, and fifty years later, the population peaked at about 635 people. Today, Potwin is on the downswing, with only about 420 people living there. It’s pretty easy to miss.
But it’s also pretty easy to find. Grab any map of the contiguous United States — that is, the U.S. minus Hawaii, Alaska, and any territories like Puerto Rico — and put your finger in the middle, and you’ll come pretty close to Potwin. The actual geographic center of the contiguous United States is Lebanon, Kansas, about a three-hour drive north of Potwin, but, again, close enough.
Unless you’re James and Theresa Arnold, in which case, that coincidence turned into a nightmare.
In 2011, the couple bought a 600-plus acre farm just outside of Potwin, thinking nothing of the fact that they were near, but not quite at, the geographic center of the contiguous United States; why would they? But as the BBC reported five years later, the Arnolds’ life there got off to an odd start: “the first week after the Arnolds moved in, two deputies from the Butler County Sheriff’s Department came to the residence looking for a stolen truck.” It didn’t take long for the police to figure out that they were in the wrong place — thankfully. But unfortunately for the very innocent couple living on the farm outside of Potwin, this wouldn’t be the first time police — or crime victims — would show up at their doorstep expecting to find criminals on the other side of the gate. On a regular basis, the Arnolds were accused of all sorts of crimes and malfeasance, despite being wholly innocent.
The problem? The Internet.
Right now, you’re almost certainly reading these words on some sort of Internet-connected device. It could be a phone, maybe it’s a computer, or maybe you figured out a way to get Now I Know onto a Kindle or smart TV or something like that. And as a result, your device has something called an “Internet protocol address,” or more commonly, an “IP address” or simply “IP.” Basically, it’s the address that servers use to send you the information you requested. Your IP doesn’t tell anyone where you are physically located in the real world; it only tells the Internet machines where your machine is “located” in the metaphysical, online world.
But ultimately, the data you’re being sent and receiving has to reach you in the real world, and therefore, we can use your IP address to approximate your physical location. There are publicly available tools like WhatIsMyIPAddress.com, and if you give it a try, you’ll see that it is hit-or-miss. On my WiFi-connected laptop in my home, that website places me about 80 miles from where I actually am; on my cellular-connected phone, it has me nearly 300 miles away from my actual location. We’re hardly talking about precise data.
Private companies have stepped into this space to try to get a clearer, more precise picture of where you are based on your IP address. Often, that information is used for serving up ads that are relevant to you, but it can also be used to help law enforcement solve crimes. For example, in 2020, officials in India caught a cyberstalker by using his IP address to find out where he lived.
In April of 2016, journalist Kashmir Hill published a story about one such company, MaxMind. Per its website, MaxMind’s “GeoIP’ service lets its customers turn IPs into physical locations to help inform “content customization, advertising, digital rights management, compliance, fraud detection, security and more.” Sometimes, MaxMind can zero in on an IP’s street address, but not always. Often, all the company could determine is that the IP was in the United States.
That’s not all that useful, but on its servers, MaxMind needed to give “the United States” a specific longitudinal and latitudinal location. So, as Hill reported, when MaxMind “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,” per Hill. The longitude and latitude of the actual center of the United States is 39.8333333,-98.585522, and at the time, MaxMind used an approximation that gave cleaner numbers. 38,-97, or 38 degrees North and 97 degrees West. That’s probably not all that meaningful to you or me, but to the Arnolds, that’s incredibly meaningful: it’s where their farm is. MaxMind associated more than 600 million IP addresses with the Arnolds’ home.
Over the years, the Arnolds received hundreds if not thousands of visits from people looking for justice and beyond. Per the Washington Post, “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. [. . . ] One day, a broken toilet was left in the driveway without explanation. One day, a broken toilet was left in the driveway without explanation.” And that would drive anyone bonkers. So in August of 2016, the Arnolds sued MaxMind.
Unlike most lawsuits, though, this one appears to have a happy ending. The two parties settled and MaxMind decided to review its default IP address locations, placing them in the middle of a large body of water to avoid such issues in the future. Going forward, there won’t be any mistakes of this variety, unless you’re Aquaman.
From the Archives: The Internet’s Hidden Teapot: It’s not in Kansas either.