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Mon, Aug 20, 2007 - Page 11 News List

`Wikiscanner' reveals source of edits

BIG NAMES The CIA, the UN and the Vatican do not have much in common, but the `Wikiscanner' has traced changes to Wikipedia entries to each of their IP addresses


A US hacker's homemade program to pinpoint origins of Wikipedia edits indicates that alterations to the popular online encyclopedia have come from the US CIA and the Vatican.

Virgil Griffith's "Wikiscanner" points to CIA computers as the sources of nearly 300 edits to subjects including Iran's president, the Argentine navy and China's nuclear arsenal.

A CIA computer was the source of a whiny "Wahhhhh" inserted in a paragraph about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's plans for the office.

"While I cannot confirm whether any changes were made from CIA computers, the agency always expects its computer systems to be used responsibly," CIA spokesman George Little said in response to an inquiry.

Anyone can make changes to the Internet encyclopedia. Wikipedia's founders believe people who know better will quickly correct inaccurate or misleading data.

Griffith says his software matches unique "IP" addresses of computers with Wikipedia records regarding which machines are used to make online edits.

"I came up with the idea when I heard about congressmen getting caught for whitewashing their Wikipedia pages," the graduate student and self-described hacker explains on his Web site.

Most edits listed at Wikiscanner involve minor changes such as spelling. Some alterations involve removing unflattering information, adding facts or inserting insults.

Wikiscanner's roster indicates that a Vatican computer was used to remove references to evidence linking Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to a decades-old double murder.

Someone at the US Democratic Party's congressional campaign committee changed a description of conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh to replace "comedian" with "bigot" and dub his listeners "legally retarded."

"We don't condone these sorts of activities and we take every precaution to insure our network is used in a responsible manner," committee spokesman Doug Thornell said.

A Republican Party computer purportedly was used after the US invasion of Iraq to change "occupying forces" to "liberating forces" in a Baath Party entry.

A UN computer is identified as the source of an edit that calls a respected Italian journalist a promiscuous racist, while someone using a US Senate computer altered a profile of veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas to complain she "interrupts" and is annoying.

An edit traced by Wikiscanner to the BBC changes causes of former UK prime minister Tony Blair's heart palpitations from strong coffee and vigorous gym workouts to vodka and exertion in the bedroom.

Wikiscanner also identified a BBC computer as being used to change US President George W. Bush's middle name from "Walker" to "Wanker." A computer belonging to Reuters news service is listed as adding "mass murderer" to a Wikipedia description of Bush.

Griffith said it appears common for political figures to "whitewash" entries by replacing negative adjectives with flattering ones and that corporations seem inclined to insert criticism of competitors and both show similar tendencies to remove critical information. He still considers the collaborative open Wikipedia model reliable.

"Overall -- especially for non-controversial topics -- Wikipedia already works," he said. "For controversial topics, Wikipedia can be made more reliable through techniques like this one ... to counteract vandalism and disinformation."

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