In between many of the serious issues we try to follow on the Disarmament Insight blog, a news story popped up last week from Reuters that begged for comment.
It seems that people using computers traced to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have been editing entries in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. This was apparently discovered with a piece of software developed by the Sante Fe Institute called WikiScanner.
A wiki is a web site that allows collaborative editing of its content and structure by users. It's said to owe its origins to computer programmer Ward Cunningham, from the Hawaiian "wiki-wiki", which means "quick-quick". Wikipedia is perhaps the best known, largest and most popular wiki by number of those who consult it.
Reuters reported that, using WikiScanner, Wired magazine compiled a massive list of CIA and FBI edited Wikipedia entries. Apparently CIA and FBI computers were deployed to edit topics including the Iraq War and the Guantanamo prison. For instance, aerial and satellite images of Guantanamo were removed using a computer traced to the FBI.
This isn't really as surprising as it might initially seem. After all, public diplomacy was a major aspect of intelligence and counter-intelligence activities during the Cold War. There were always jokes about diplomatic cultural attaches often being spooks. Propaganda, influencing public documents or manipulating perceptions about one's ideological system were par for the course.
But the world of the virtual may offer more opportunities for Culture Wars to take on insidious meaning as recent attacks on Estonia's information infrastructure by hackers show. It raises a question: is there a clear boundary between manipulating the internet and tearing parts of it down?
Clearly it's not a hot war on Wikipedia yet. Instead, the Reuters article noted that the CIA and FBI editing may violate Wikipedia's guidelines on conflict-of-interest. Meanwhile, the beauty of open-source online resources is that the editing process is pretty continual and, as the Reuters story noted, Wikipedia's "self-correcting". No doubt there will now be plenty of geeks out there even more vigilant than usual that their favourite wiki entries aren't tampered with by The Man.
Meanwhile, it's not clear to me whether anyone (outside the CIA and FBI, at least) knows if Wikipedia edits done with their computers were officially endorsed, or were just someone surfing the web on their lunch hour. If the CIA and FBI are sneakily trying to manipulate openly available information sources it does seem to lack a sense of fair play. (But then who said government agencies have ever had much of a sense of fair play, anyway?) Nevertheless, it would have been pretty dumb to think someone, somewhere, wouldn't pick up on it.
Wikipedia, for all of its flaws (and largely because of them), is a form of social engineering as well as a repository of knowledge. Its evolution is really quite fascinating from cultural and anthropological perspectives - this is just the latest bizarre twist.
Revealingly, perhaps, according to Wired's own wiki, a CIA computer was used to edit Wikipedia's - disturbingly extensive - entry on Star Wars lightsaber combat. I leave it to you to decide how much this has to do with the War on Terror...
Image downloaded from Flickr (where, incidentally, the keyword "lightsaber" turns up more than 7,000 pictures).
If your boss isn't looking, check out Wookiepedia, the Star Wars wiki.