Government workers goof off on Wikipedia

May 13, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Should public employees be editing the on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia while they're on the clock?

We all know how easy it is to burn a few hours on the Internet. But, the I-Team was able to prove local government workers are pursuing personal interests on-line while on the clock -- using computers you paid for.

We used a program that cross-matches massive amounts of data to trace hundreds of edits back to government agencies in the Bay Area. Most of them have nothing to do with government business.

What do the movie "The Big Lebowski," the video game "Call of Duty 4," and American Idol contestant William Hung have in common?

They're all the subject of anonymous edits to Wikipedia that we've been able to track back to city and county government agencies in the Bay Area.

"Wikipedia's information comes from people from all over the world," said Jay Walsh from Wikipedia.

Anyone can edit any article on Wikipedia, and when they do, they have the option of creating an account, or staying anonymous.

"A lot of edits come from anonymous addresses," said Walsh.

But the Internet Protocol, or IP address of the computer making that edit still gets recorded.

"You're trying to remain anonymous by not registering an account, but by you not registering an account, it leaves your IP address, which makes it easier and easier to track you," said Caltech graduate student Virgil Griffith.

So Griffith came up with a simple idea: create a program that automatically figures out who owns those IP addresses. He calls it Wikiscanner.

An IP address is usually not enough to pinpoint a specific computer or person, but it can identify a company or government entity. So we thought it might be interesting to find out what was on the minds of local government workers.

Employees from the San Francisco Department of Public Health were the most frequent contributors, making 475 changes to Wikipedia in the last three years.

They added a link to a trailer for the sci-fi show "Battlestar Gallactica," trivia about San Francisco locations in the classic Hitchcock film "Vertigo," 15 edits about "WrestleMania" and personal information to the bio of gay porn star Brandon Lee.

"Clearly it sounds as if that's not city business," said Gregg Sass from the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Part of Sass's job, as chief financial officer of the Department of Public Health, is to oversee the computer network. He says editing Wikipedia with government computers is an obvious violation of the city's Internet use policy.

"They're prohibited from using city equipment for non-business use, period," said Sass.

DPH is so concerned about inappropriate Internet use, it's going to start using a system called Ironport to track internet access from every agency computer, and provide managers with detailed daily reports. Sass says the monitoring software is due to go into effect in the next two months.

But it's not just San Francisco.

Someone from San Mateo Superior Court contributed a list of singer Barry Manilow's greatest hits.

And in Alameda County, the I-Team found 245 edits on topics as diverse as the TV show "Beverly Hills 90210," a pygmy chimpanzee called the Bonobo and the Oakland Raiders.

"There's always a certain amount of people that are going to abuse the system," said Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty.

Haggerty is president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. He says, most county workers do the right thing.

"We're all very busy here working, and I don't think a lot of people have a lot of time to go out and start playing on the Internet," said Haggerty.

But there are notable exceptions. Someone using an Alameda County computer made 67 changes to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's Wikipedia entry -- most of them personal attacks. They even added Newsom's name to a list of gay celebrities 11 times.

"I think it's wrong for any county employee to discuss issues like that," said Haggerty.

One edit read: Newsom "has had a less than stellar tenure as mayor" and that "53 percent of the electorate voted for a boy to do a man's job."

But that one didn't stay up for long. Someone using a San Francisco city computer changed it to read: "Newsom has been a very popular mayor in San Francisco with over an 80 percent approval rating (one of the highest for any major U.S. politician)."

In Santa Clara County, the I-Team found 325 edits from government computers: 38 on baseball teams, 48 on the Hawaii Warriors football team as well as entries about Mexican pop singer Thalia, the Amazon River dolphin and sexual themes in the video game "Bully."

"We find Wikipedia to be an excellent resource, and we use it for information on many topics," said Santa Clara County spokeswoman Gwen Mitchell.

Mitchell says employees are allowed to use county computers for personal purposes, as long as it doesn't interfere with their job. But, she says, the examples the I-Team uncovered go too far.

"The ones that you mention, clearly there's no apparent business use," said Mitchell.

ABC7's Dan Noyes: "Is that a problem for the county?"

"It's something that we're looking into," said Mitchell.

"I wouldn't want my tax dollars going to someone that's changing Wikipedia articles," said Mitch Hyatt from Dublin.

Reaction was mixed among the taxpayers the I-Team spoke with on the street.

"Well I think everybody screws around at their job, so I'm not surprised," said Jacqlyn Smith from San Francisco.

"They probably shouldn't do it. I mean, there's a time and a place for that kind of stuff, and I don't think the workplace is appropriate for that," said Fidel Garcia from Hercules.

But, the grad student who created Wikiscanner says everyone has something to contribute to the sum of knowledge and he wants to keep Wikipedia open to all, even government workers.

"A lot of people want to lock things down. And I don't want to lock them down. I want to keep them open while, while constantly examining them," said Griffith.


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