For years, strangers showed up at John and his mother Ann’s home in Pretoria, South Africa, accusing them of crimes. These mysterious visitors were certain that their house was a location for criminal activity, and pulled up maps on their smartphones to prove it. But John was a lawyer; his mother was a nurse. They weren’t criminals, but rather victims of very bad IP address mapping — and it turns out, the U.S. government played a big role in the mess.
For Gizmodo, Special Projects Desk deputy editor Kashmir Hill — who reported on a similar story about a farm in Kansas — investigates why John and Ann’s backyard had over a million IP addresses mapped to it, and how a U.S. intelligence agency’s poor decision led to a series of mistakes reflected in databases used by IP mapping sites, companies, and people all over the world.
“My mother blamed me initially,” said John. “She said I brought the internet into the house.”
The visits came in waves, sometimes as many as seven a month, and often at night. The strangers would lurk outside or bang on the automatic fence at the driveway. Many of them, accompanied by police officers, would accuse John and Ann of stealing their phones and laptops. Three teenagers showed up one day looking for someone writing nasty comments on their Instagram posts. A family came in search of a missing relative. An officer from the State Department appeared seeking a wanted fugitive. Once, a team of police commandos stormed the property, pointing a huge gun through the door at Ann, who was sitting on the couch in her living room eating dinner. The armed commandos said they were looking for two iPads.
“It’s almost with religious zeal that these people come, thinking their goodies are in my yard,” John told me. “The Apple customers seem to be the worst.”
They wondered if it would be worse if they weren’t white South Africans. And indeed, when the police showed up looking for a stolen laptop at the home of their neighbor, a pastor named Horace, who is black, the police wound up seizing a laptop at the home and taking Horace’s tenant to the station for questioning. It was a dead end, as usual.