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State workers' trivial pursuit: Editing Wikipedia entries

State-owned computers edit Wikipedia, silly to serious.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- If you haven't visited Wikipedia lately, you might be surprised to learn that Tampa native turned porn star Avy Scott does not have breast implants.

For this history-altering wisdom, you can thank someone at the Florida Department of Health.

By the grace of a computer user at the Florida Supreme Court, the world now knows that Yuengling is not only America's oldest beermaker, but that it produces the "finest lager brewed in this country."

And without the intel of someone at the Florida Department of Transportation, Saddam Hussein would be many things but not a "dumb m-----f-----."

These Wikipedia edits and hundreds more were made by people using state-owned computers -- all of which have come to light by a new Web site that tracks changes to the publicly edited online encyclopedia, which is run by a foundation in St. Petersburg.

WikiScanner has been a media delight since it burst onto the scene this month, used to expose corporate mischief and political games in Washington. Someone at PepsiCo, for example, deleted information that soft drinks could be unhealthy. A computer user at the U.S. Department of Justice listed the duties of Congress as including "to go poopy."

The St. Petersburg Times unleashed the program on state government. An hour of searching Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses attached to computers at state agencies and the Legislature turned up some interesting tidbits.

Someone there added a sexually explicit "urban legend" about rapper Lil' Kim.

Not all edits are humorous.

In April this year, someone using a computer owned by the Legislature removed an entry on the page for Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs. Anyone who drops by the page now will not learn that Constantine was arrested on a DUI charge in 2004.

"I don't even know what Wikipedia is," Constantine said Thursday. "I'm surprised I can even pronounce it."

He said no one in his office told him about deleting negative information on the Internet. "I can't hide it and I don't try to hide it."

At the Department of Transportation, which leads all state agencies with 543 edits, someone modified an entry on wigwams, the domed huts used by American Indians, to say women were not only responsible for home furnishing but also promiscuous (though the word was less polite). And someone using the DOT computer network in April changed a page on the Virginia Tech shootings to identify the culprit as Michael Jackson.

"The King of Pop's death is still to be determined," the person wrote.

The Department of Health entry on Avy Scott, the porn star from Tampa, came in January 2006. Someone changed a bio box that indicated Scott did not have a "natural bust."

She does, apparently.

All told, computers at the health agency have been used to edit 124 Wikipedia entries since 2004.

Though they are benign, "It doesn't seem to me like the best use of a public servant's time," agency spokesman Kevin Cate said when shown WikiScanner results.

Still, agency rules regarding computer use allow for employees to visit nonprohibited Internet sites for personal reasons during a lunch hour or other nonwork time. Policies are similar at other state agencies.

WikiScanner is the work of 24-year-old college student Virgil Griffith. He said he wrote the program partly "to create a cornucopia of minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike."

The foundation that runs Wikipedia in St. Petersburg said it welcomes the transparency of WikiScanner and is not worried about less than honorable edits.

"They may delete something but more than likely - it may take a day, a week or a few seconds - that information will be brought back by someone," spokeswoman Sandra Ordonez said Thursday. "That's the beauty of Wikipedia."

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com or (850)224-7263.

Fast Facts: How it works

WikiScanner, found at wikiscanner.virgil.gr, is a program that identifies anonymous changes to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. It was created by a college graduate student who heard about congressional members editing negative information on their own pages.

It works by linking changes to electronic fingerprints, called Internet Protocol addresses, attached to corporations, government entities and other organizations. The IP information was already available, but WikiScanner collects the sprawling database (34.4-million edits since 2002) in a searchable form.

Inside the Times

A search of the St. Petersburg Times' IP address revealed 21 edits of entries concerning spinal muscular atrophy, U.S. president James K. Polk, a poker player named David Singer and accused fraudster Lou Pearlman. In the Pearlman entry, the change referred people to a Times blog for updates on the case. None of the minor changes appeared controversial or derogatory.