New Tool Outs Would-Be Wikipedia Tricksters

Anonymous Wikipedia editors who seek to alter articles for less-than-honorable purposes can no longer hide behind their cloak of anonymity: A new scanner tool now makes it relatively easy to figure out where they came from.

WikiScanner, developed by California Institute of Technology graduate student Virgil Griffith, traces the IP addresses that get stored when anonymous editors make their changes to Wikipedia articles and links them back to the organizations they came from. So, if U.S. Senate staff members were to repeat the editing efforts they undertook last year to remove information that made certain senators look bad, for example, everyone would know it.

“Overall — especially for noncontroversial topics — Wikipedia seems to work,” Griffith told LinuxInsider. “For controversial topics, Wikipedia can be made more reliable through techniques like this one.”

The Word From Wales

By increasing the accountability of Wikipedia users, WikiScanner could go a long way toward preventing much of the subjective editing that some have argued threatens the online encyclopedia’s objectivity and ultimate worth.

“It’s awesome — I love it,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told LinuxInsider. “It brings an additional level of transparency to what’s going on at Wikipedia.”

Indeed, the tool “uses information we’ve been making publicly available forever, hoping someone would do something like this,” Wales added.

A Reasonable Assumption

The IP addresses of those who make Wikipedia changes have always been stored on the site, and WHOIS directories have been separately available on the Web to determine the organizations behind those addresses. By linking those functions, however, WikiScanner has made it easy for anyone to see who’s done what on Wikipedia.

Users can search by organization name, IP address or Wikipedia page to see where edits have come from, and the tool also provides direct links to the results for organizations that may be of particular interest, such as Diebold, Wal-Mart, the CIA and Al-Jazeera.

The results don’t name individuals involved, but rather the organization behind the IP address. “Technically, we don’t know whether it came from an agent of that company,” Griffith acknowledged. “However, we do know that edit came from someone with access to their network. If the edit occurred during working hours, then we can reasonably assume that the person is either an agent of that company or a guest that was allowed access to their network.”

‘Most Shameful’ Contest

The WikiScanner site was swamped Wednesday, and Griffith couldn’t even estimate how many people had visited it so far. Yet for all its immediate popularity and the intense enthusiasm with which users raced to see who has been doing what on Wikipedia — creating lists and contests, even, such as Wired’s invitation to “Vote on the Most Shameful Wikipedia Spin Jobs” — the tool may provide insight into the nature of democratic media.

“The cool thing is that the transparency exists to make a tool like this possible,” founder Rob Malda told LinuxInsider. “It would be nice if other sources of theoretically trustworthy data, such as the White House, had the same level of transparency.”

While edits made for image-management purposes are not necessarily against the rules of Wikipedia, the tool gives the site’s editors “the opportunity to look at something and then realize that maybe they should give it a second look,” Malda explained.

Farewell, Anonymity?

Indeed, identity and reliability are intimately interconnected in the nature of media in general — without knowing who provided a piece of information, it’s difficult to assess its reliability. So can anonymity be a part of an open medium?

“I think one of the core messages of the cypherpunk movement is that anonymous speech is important and should be preserved,” Griffith said. “So no, I do not believe something like WikiScanner, which identifies people, is necessary. For any sort of open project, I strongly prefer allowing people to remain anonymous while also doing various back-end analyses to counteract vandalism and disinformation.”

Yet the question of accountability is at the very heart of the evolution of human approaches to information.

Questions of Accountability

“The Web as a tool for coordinating what people think and know, as a kind of exoskeletal nervous system for humanity, is just beginning,” Eben Moglen, professor of law at Columbia Law School and founding director of the Software Freedom Law Center, told LinuxInsider. “We are barely 10 years into the gestation of what is fundamentally as deep as the invention of writing thousands of years ago.”

Wikipedia is the second most-sophisticated entity on the Web today — after only Google — and represents an early attempt to provide in a democratic way everything that is publicly available to be known in our society, Moglen asserts. As Wikipedia becomes increasingly able to compete across the broad range of media — outpacing virtually every traditional news organization in the coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre, for example — questions of identity and reliability are becoming increasingly critical.

“The Web, for all its overtrackability, is still capable of the production of tentative anonymity and temporary obscurity — you can lurk,” Moglen said. WikiScanner is providing “a sudden burst of bright light and a social navigation tool for understanding the Web,” he added. “People are going to use the hell out of it and discover all kinds of interesting things.”

More to Come

Over the next few years people will begin to use the tool in increasingly sophisticated ways — beyond “just playing this game of seeing who was paid to make a change” — and a generation from now, “there will be far more interesting, complex and entirely routinized insights,” Moglen concluded.

“There are orders of magnitude more clever things on the way,” he said. “We’ll take it for granted that everyone knows how to do them just as we take it for granted today that everyone knows how to look up a phone number in the now-obsolete White Pages.”

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