Wikipedia Editors, Beware. You Might Be Next

Wikipedia isn’t all that it advertises to be. But perhaps, that’s a good thing.

If you thought that just because you were a keyboard warrior and could do and write everything and anything from behind a monitor with a keyboard in your hand then, sadly, you thought wrong. In an online world filled with cyber criminals and hackers, virtually no one is safe.

Well, there is a way of getting safe while you type away online and we’ll get to one of those later in the post but first, the important bit.

It seems likes not even Wikipedia users are safe from online threats and harassment. Various media outlets have now reported that Wikipedia editors are being forced to use the highly private and secure Tor network in order to make edits anonymously on Wikipedia so that online harassers can spare their lives, figuratively speaking of course.

Probably, the truly sad part here is that, this isn’t the first time Wikipedia editors have faced the wrath of online warriors who try to police the content that gets posted online using strict and mostly unfair means.

Now reports have indicated that following these threats, many Wikipedia editors (especially the ones who edited sensitive and/or controversial pages on Wikipedia) are now resorting to hiding their true identities on the internet in order to protect themselves.

Wikipedia editors are now using services such as those offered by the Tor network in order to hide their identity. Of course, one can get the same effect with the help of a decent proxy server but it never hurts to be extra careful and use a VPN service along with the Tor service.

As mentioned before, the primary target of online harassers has been those Wikipedia editors who have been involved in editing and contributing to controversial topics.

Little did these Wikipedia editors know that people’s emotions can get flared up even in the online world and probably more so than in the offline world where there are law enforcement agencies to stop people from making something untoward happen at a public and/or private place.

Tor is useful not only for people like Snowden but also for much the average joes like Wikipedia editors.

As mentioned before, the harmless task of editing a Wikipedia page can now be enough of a reason for anyone to issue death threats to people who edit these pages out of curiosity or by just have sheer command over a particular subject.

Now Wikipedia editors can’t just go online and edit any and every page they feel like they have a grasp over. The consequences of editing a sensitive Wikipedia page can be horrific, at least as far as a person’s online mental health is concerned.

The situation has spread to an extent that credible institutions have actually started to interview those Wikipedia editors who have been harassed by online keyboard warriors for failing to meet a certain standard of editing when it came to writing on and organizing certain Wikipedia pages.

Researchers at the Drexel University in Philadelphia interviewed about twenty-three of these editors who had face online threat as a result of their job on Wikipedia pages and other entries and the answers to some of the question threw up some surprising views.

Drexel University researcher’s aim was to find out the need and the circumstances required from an individual that would lead that individual to hide his/her online identity. The researchers were also interested in finding out that how a particular person would get into a situation where he/she would need or want to hide his/her online identity.

Wikipedia editors are just like any other online users. Susceptible to harassment.

Researchers wanted to look at the way these individuals went about their business without letting their online identities leak out and also wanted to know what led them to the dilemma.

Just Because It Is The Online World, Doesn’t Mean That The Threats Aren’t Real Or Don’t Feel Scary

Researchers were quickly able to ascertain in the beginning of the search that the threats received by these Wikipedia editors were indeed real and were substantial in the sense that they were worded quite strongly. Not something someone would do as a joke or a prank (though with modern pranksters who have taken over sites like YouTube, one can and probably should expect anything and everything).

Researchers were also able to understand that these threats were serious enough to push some of the editors who worked on Wikipedia article and even some other Wikipedia officials to make use of online anonymity services such as Tor and the like.

It is also true that Tor is generally reputed to be an online service that is primarily used by cyber criminals who want to evade law enforcement agencies but recent events including the one that happened with Snowden, have proven that isn’t the case.

But Tor is still primarily used by people looking to hide their identities for one reason or another. Tor helps people cover their tracks in the online world by helping them hide their activities from the various law enforcement agencies.

Tor has also proven itself so be of absolute importance to people, just like these Wikipedia editors, who want to conceal their online identities for privacy and safety reasons. Not only that but Tor also helps these individuals hide their physical locations so people with any malintent can’t look up where they live or go to for work.

Tor basically secures a persona’s online identity along with the physical location. A VPN service also does that but it is always better to be safe with an extra added layer of anonymity and privacy when you’re working in the harsh world of the internet where cybercriminals and hackers are lurking in every nook and corner, waiting for weaklings to make a mistake and get punished.

What Are The Wikipedia Limitations That Forces These Wikipedia Editors To Hide Not Only Their Identities But Also Their Physical Locations Along With Their Names and Their Contributions?

The problem with Wikipedia is that, even though the site says that this encyclopedia is totally open source and anyone can with a keyboard and an internet connection may or may not edit it, the reality is that, there are some restrictions in place (to ensure quality and other purposes) to who can and who can’t edit any particular Wikipedia page.

With that said, it is still generally true that anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can still theoretically edit any Wikipedia page and that too without ever needing to sign up for an account on the website.

However, the problem arises because even though anyone and everyone can edit a Wikipedia page, for the most part, Wikipedia does not hide the IP address of the user who has made any particular change or edit in a given Wikipedia entry.

Even worse, people who look to hide their IP address using online anonymity services such as Tor are blocked from editing Wikipedia articles and other entries. There are exceptions available, but the vast majority of the users who try to hide their IP address by using a service such as Tor are blocked out of Wikipedia and hence can’t contribute it just like any other average online user would or could.

Wikipedia editors have to use anonymity tools like Tor to get safe.

Are Threats Real?

Well, according to what the researchers were able to find out from these Wikipedia editors, the threats are real dependant on where they originate. A threat could come from a prankster or from a single individual and those aren’t usually worth to give time too.

But threats can also come from powerful individuals or politically connected groups who can turn threats into actions without much effort. These type of entities have the necessary manpower and clearances to hurt people based on their contribution to as innocuous as a Wikipedia entry.

The Wikipedia editors who were interviewed by the researchers at the Drexel University were twenty-three in total and about twelve of those used an online anonymity service like Tor to hide their true locations by masking their IP addresses.

The other eleven used other available methods and anonymity strategies to make sure that their online identity along with privacy was safe from prying eyes while they could go about their business in a secure manner and collaborate more on different Wikipedia entries and articles.

How Does Tor Help These Wikipedia Editors?

As indicated earlier in the article, Tor is reputed to be one of the best, if not the best, piece of software in the market for users who are looking to hide their identities and guard their privacy. In a nutshell, Tor accomplishes that task by hiding the location of the user by passing each packet of the user’s online data through a series of relays and different IP addresses. It jumbles up the original IP address of the user to such an extent that only military-grade hacking can trace a particular online packet back to its original source i.e the user trying to hide his/her online identity.

There is no doubt about the fact that some websites deliberately try to make things harder for users who want to hide their identity and protect their privacy.

Tor users aren’t expected to experience the web as normal users do because websites simply do not allow them to use the same features or even see the same version of the site without the Tor network.

But Wikipedia takes it up a notch and outright blocks users who use Tor as a solution to their concerns for privacy and anonymity.

The people at Wikipedia make use of several methods which are more commonly known as “hard methods” which block Tor users and make is a lot more irritating for users to use the website in order to contribute something to the open-source encyclopedia without revealing their true identities.

Wikipedia officials would say that they do that in order to ensure the quality of content that stays up on Wikipedia and hence when users know that others can see what they have contributed, they are more likely to fact check their information and contribution.

One of the annoying methods used by Wikipedia to block users who are trying to connect to the website by using Tor is the generous use of CAPTCHAs. Wikipedia is hosted by an online hosting service by the name of Cloudflare and CloudFlare protects its clients by deploying multiple CAPTCHAs in order to guard against bots messing up any given website.

However, these same CAPTCHAs make it tough for users who are using Tor to hide their identities, to use the site without a tiresome amount of interruptions.

However, researchers were able to find out that these CAPTCHAs protection tools are considered as a small price to pay for these Wikipedia editors who just want to access the site without giving up their online credentials.

Wikipedia also has a hierarchy where more experienced users can bully newcomers.

Everyone Knows About The Threats From Outside But Are There Threats Even From The Inside?

Among the twenty-three editors who were interviewed by the researchers was a girl who had been engaged in open collaborative projects since the age of thirteen and she recounted multiple experiences of receiving rape and death threats based on her collaborations and contributions. She was of the opinion that risks such as these were ever present in this line of work.

Quite shockingly, it was also revealed that some of the threats that were issued actually came from the editors of the related pages themselves.

Nevertheless, the threats are usually aimed at the administrators of any given Wikipedia page. The threats normally raise their ugly heads when the administrator of the page blocks a particular post.

That doesn’t automatically mean that administrators of pages block every request for a page. In fact, administrators are known to be quite generous in allowing more open free content on Wikipedia than on some of the other sites.

But there is a system of rankings in place at Wikipedia which allows individuals or users with higher ranks, more privileges and power as far as making and saving edits on a particular page are concerned.

These same higher ranking “officials” are often found to be the instigators of violent bullying.

What About Government Interference?

And if the cyberbullying wasn’t enough, the Wikipedia editors also have to watch out for government surveillance.

Wikipedia editors who use Tor to hide their identity and guard their privacy tend to receive special attention from the feds. Editors who have a lot of reputation to defend and possible increase, suffer the most as anything or everything they may write or say, can affect their overall trustworthiness with various government organizations.

Researchers also pointed out that one of the Wikipedia editors even backed out from editing the Edward Snowden page because of the fear of a backlash from certain segments of the government.

Is The Toxic Environment At Wikipedia, Choking The Very Purpose of Open Collaboration?

Researchers at Drexel University concluded that Wikipedia editors indeed suffered through massive amounts of online harassment and that would only lead to a loss of quality, not to mention diversity, in Wikipedia content over the long haul.

Wikipedia prides itself on having a unique and unbiased source of knowledge and problems like these would only dampen that claim.

The research paper is set to come out in February 2017 in an ACM conference.

Zohair Zohair is currently a content crafter at Security Gladiators and has been involved in the technology industry for more than a decade. He is an engineer by training and, naturally, likes to help people solve their tech related problems. When he is not writing, he can usually be found practicing his free-kicks in the ground beside his house.

1 thought on “Wikipedia Editors, Beware. You Might Be Next”

  1. What concerns me is companies that leave a vital download required to access their product open to editing. Anyone can edit a page and put in false links to download what the company has lead them to believe is the correct one to use. When allowing that page open to anyone to edit and not closed they run the risk of exposing that user base to unwanted spam and worse programs that will compromise a computer security.

    Has anything been researched on this and the impact it has caused? It would be interesting to see how many companies do not realize what they have left themselves open to because they “trust” the public to NOT abuse it in this way.

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