Surprise! Spies Manipulate Their Wikipedia Pages

Less is more for agents’ public profiles

Surprise! Spies Manipulate Their Wikipedia Pages Surprise! Spies Manipulate Their Wikipedia Pages
The Wikipedia entries for top public figures in the intelligence community are pretty barren. This makes sense—it’s not really in the best interest of... Surprise! Spies Manipulate Their Wikipedia Pages

The Wikipedia entries for top public figures in the intelligence community are pretty barren. This makes sense—it’s not really in the best interest of spies to divulge their backgrounds.

Many intel services around the world escape having an entry at all in “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” On the other hand, bigger outfits like America’s Central Intelligence Agency, the United Kingdom’s MI6 or Russia’s Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki can’t hope to totally hide from enthusiastic Wikipedians.

As a result, anonymous editors—often identified only by easily faked IP addresses—seem to keep a close eye on what gets said about these shadowy organizations and their employees.

Thankfully for all of us, Wikipedia displays a timeline of edits for all of its pages, so we can trace this apparent “spincraft” as it happens.

Of course, it’s unfair to assume that spies or other government agents orchestrate all of the more questionable changes on the site. That said, it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility to imagine these actors are manipulating pages to some degree.

For instance, Wikipedia’s account of Zaheerul Islam is heavily edited. Islam is the Director-General of Pakistan’s powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence and the 52nd most powerful man in the world, according to Forbes.

Some of the details repeatedly removed from Zaheerul’s entry include his place of birth, the names of his relatives not in the military and accusations about his involvement in an attack on a prominent television reporter.

The journalist, Hamid Mir, is an outspoken critic of the U.S. drone program. Islamabad banned him from appearing on television twice between 2007 and 2008.

Screen grab of revisions for Zaheerul Islam. Source: Wikipedia

Mir survived the attack in April and accused of the ISI of trying to kill him. Three days later, an anonymous Wikipedia editor changed Zaheerul’s profile and blamed Mir’s employer Geo TV for the assassination attempt.

Next door to Pakistan, India’s Research and Analysis Wing is equally suspect—but in a different way. The entry for the agency’s current chief Alok Joshi is in a category entitled “spymasters.” The listing also includes the four previous heads of the RA&W.

Wikipedia’s catalog of master spies also features Markus Wolf, the American made famous for operating in East Berlin, and William Wickham, the founder of Britain’s foreign secret service during the French Revolution. Of the 27 individuals listed in the group, the four Indian spy chiefs are the only living members and their biographies are the shortest, averaging only 150 words each.

Some people might find it curious that four of India’s intelligence directors made it onto the same list as the man who inspired James Bond. But South Asian secret agents aren’t the only targets of this online manipulation.

Ukraine’s two main intelligence branches got new chairmen after the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych in late February. The new government put Nail Viktor Ivanovich in charge of the Foreign Intelligence Service on Feb. 27. Yurii Pavlov became Chief of Defense Intelligence on March 3.

Soon thereafter, enterprising editors modified the Wikipedia descriptions for both agencies. The Foreign Intelligence Service’s reference information—the section that validates all the facts in an entry—was filled with dead hyperlinks.

The page for Ukrainian Chiefs of Defense Intelligence was also changed. The new version said the incumbent Serhiy Hmyza was on his way out, but Pavlov was not added.

Elsewhere on the free encyclopedia, someone erased accusations of human rights violations from the profile of Former Israeli Director of Intelligence Aviv Kochavi. And, in a similar way, claims that CIA Director John Brennan converted to Islam while stationed in Saudi Arabia got cleared from his biography.

Screen grab of revisions for General Intelligence Directorate (Egypt). Source: Wikipedia

Not surprisingly, North Korea has a skeleton entry consisting of only two sentences for its intelligence director, Choi Bu-il. Conversely, the page on Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate for some reason stated for more than a week that a Greek person—unfamiliar to us—was the head of the organization.

Open source intelligence has always been an important tool for world powers. This information plays an even bigger role in global military affairs and politics in the Internet age.

The conductors of secret operations around the world are also clearly becoming cognizant of their online personas. There is a reason why Qatar’s State Security’s entry is only three sentences long while the Maldives Police Service has three pages worth of text.