Kansas lake spot is ‘digital center’ of the United States

By Sam Jack
sjack@tsnews.com

Since April 2016, a spot in the middle of Cheney Lake has been a sort of “digital center” of the United States. How that is, and what that means, requires some backstory, starting at a rural farmhouse near Potwin.

When James and Theresa Arnold leased the farmhouse in 2011, they quickly discovered that the property was haunted, or maybe cursed.

The first week after they moved in, two Butler County Sheriff’s deputies rang their doorbell, looking for a stolen truck, according to a legal complaint the couple filed this February. (The Arnolds did not return a call requesting a phone interview.)

That was the first of many visits over the next five years.

Private investigators, strangers looking for parties, and angry victims of scams were among those who visited “at all hours of the night and day,” according to the complaint. The Arnolds also got threatening telephone calls. Once, someone threw a broken toilet onto their driveway.

The harassment got to the point where the sheriff put a sign at the end of their drive, telling people to call him with any questions and to keep their distance from the house.

In 2013, the Arnolds’ landlord, Joyce Taylor, hired a Wichita attorney to try and figure out what was causing the onslaught.

That effort was unsuccessful. Instead, the solution to the mystery ended up finding the Arnolds, five years after their troubles began.

Gizmodo Media Group technology reporter Kashmir Hill cracked the case. Hill had been reporting a series of stories on geolocation functions, such as the “Find My iPhone” app.

“I found out about a couple in Atlanta that had people keep coming to their house, looking for lost smartphones,” Hill said. “I determined it had to do with imprecise mapping of IP addresses.”

Jack Kramer holds up his GPS after piloting his sailboat to the coordinates of the “digital center” of the United States, in the middle of Cheney Lake.

An IP address is the Internet version of a mailing address. Every Internet-connected device has its own IP. The addresses look like this: “174.76.130.148.” An IP address tells a remote computer or server how to send data to where it is wanted.

What IP addresses do not do – were not designed to do – is tell people just where a computer or cell phone is physically located. However, they can often be used to make an educated guess, based on WiFi network data and patterns of how the addresses are assigned.

That explained what was happening to Hill’s Atlanta couple. Apple’s “Find My iPhone” guessed, repeatedly and incorrectly, that the couple’s house was full of stolen iPhones.

And, Hill discovered in April 2016, it explained the more severe problems experienced by the Arnolds.

With the help of technologist Dave Maynor, Hill combed through the database of MaxMind, a company that tries to map IP addresses to locations in the real world.

She discovered that the database includes many IPs where all MaxMind knows is that they are located somewhere in the United States.

For all 600 million of those addresses, MaxMind pointed to a spot near the middle of the continental U.S. That spot happened to be in the Arnolds’ front yard.

MaxMind warns that its IP address locations are estimates, but third-party software developers that use MaxMind’s info sometimes omit the warnings. And even when the warnings do appear, they are often ignored, according to Hill.

“We trust technology,” she said. “You pull up a map, and it’s displaying a mark: ‘Right here.’ You tend to think the technology knows what it’s talking about.”

Cheney Lake spot marked

Here’s where Cheney Lake enters the story. After Hill contacted MaxMind in April 2016 and told the company about the trouble in Potwin, the company quickly modified its database, moving its “default” U.S. location to 37°45’03.6”N, 97°49’19.2”W.

Plug those coordinates into Google and you get a marker near the middle of Cheney Lake, northeast of the Ninnescah Sailing Association clubhouse and south of the Cheney Wildlife Area.

NSA member Jack Kramer motored his sailboat to the point last Wednesday. It was quiet, except for the wind, and several degrees cooler than on shore. There was no buoy, nothing physical to distinguish it from any other spot on the 9,550-acre reservoir.

Kramer, a Garden Plain native and current Andale resident, races his sailboat most Wednesdays during lake season, and he noted that the spot is on the NSA’s usual racecourse. He said he found this new quirk of Cheney Lake amusing, and expected other NSA members would feel the same.

“If you put a point on a map, someone is going to go there. That’s probably what disturbed those other folks,” Kramer said.

Those folks, the Arnolds, are suing MaxMind, citing emotional stress resulting from defamation and invasion of privacy.

‘A heinous pain in the butt’

MaxMind’s move means that Cheney State Park, and Reno County, have run into some of the same difficulties the Arnolds did.

In Hill’s report on the digital center’s move to Cheney Lake, she quoted Maynor, the tech expert. “I want to see the bill after cops dredge the lake looking for a missing person,” Maynor said.

As yet, no dredging has occurred, but when The Times-Sentinel contacted Cheney State Park manager Mike Satterlee and Reno County Emergency Communications assistant director Leon Boyea, both said that they have had to deal with the issue.

“Generally speaking, and I do mean generally speaking, it is a heinous pain in the butt,” Boyea said.

Several months ago, Reno County 911 started getting calls from privately-run crisis hotlines and similar agencies, letting local emergency personnel know that a person in crisis had been geolocated in the county.

When 911 dispatchers look up the latitudes and longitudes provided by the hotlines, “nine times out of 10, you find that the location is at Cheney Lake, not anywhere near us,” Boyea said.

Many people who try to use IP addresses to find the physical location of somebody’s computer are now being pointed to this spot in the middle of Cheney Lake. IP addresses are unique numbers assigned to every internet-connected device. They are essential to making the World Wide Web work, but when people try to use them to physically locate internet users, they are often led astray.

Cellular internet users have IP addresses, but the methods companies like MaxMind use to associate those addresses with local areas mostly don’t work on mobile devices.

“If someone is doing business from their cell phone, it’s not going to have a good static location,” Boyea said.

Satterlee said that even if a call that comes in is likely based on a misunderstanding of IP address location estimates, emergency responders might still decide to go out and have a look. Better safe than sorry.

“No matter what location we do get, the response isn’t going to change. We’re still going to have to check it out,” he said. “It’s just a different response in the middle of a lake than if it was at a house.”

Boyea said that he does not see an easy way to make everybody understand what it means when an arrow on a computer screen points at Cheney Lake.

“I don’t know how to best overcome it,” he said. “I know there have been other jurisdictions and locations that have dealt with it far longer than we have.”

Hill said that many of MaxMind’s customers are using out-of-date versions of the MaxMind database, meaning that false positives in Cheney Lake could become more frequent over time.

“I imagine that the Arnolds may still have gotten some visits over the last year,” she said. “The lake won’t become the full center until everybody refreshes MaxMind’s data.”