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Canadian Government Workers Are Causing PR Problems by Editing Wikipedia

Taking a look at a recent Wikipedia edit made by an employee of the Canadian Department of National Defense to an article about mass surveillance in the US.
September 24, 2014, 7:06am

Image via Flickr user Jamie McCaffrey

The cozy military relationship between the US and Canada was awkwardly personified in a recent Wikipedia edit.

Earlier this year, after the creation of a Twitterbot that scans for Wikipedia edits made by computers on the networks of the Canadian government, I did a bit of digging into the edits that parliamentary staffers make about everything from video games to the Senate Scandal. The most egregious discoveries I made revealed that several Conservative Members of Parliament had ordered the removal of entire swaths of controversial segments in their own personal articles—in order to, essentially, revise history. Since then, the amount of seriously troublesome edits has gone down, which can’t be a coincidence given the new level of scrutiny placed on (surprise!) a fully modifiable encyclopedia where each and every edit is logged and published.

That said, employees of the Canadian government are still using their free time to make edits to Wikipedia. It’s just that you won’t likely see a politician ordering one of their staffers to remove a nasty bit of information about them (true or not) from their own Wikipedia article on government property unless they’re really, really stupid. Even so, the edits that are made somewhat innocently can still result in a PR headache for certain government agencies.

Take, for example, an edit made yesterday by someone on the Department of National Defense’s official network, to the article for “Mass Surveillance in the United States.” The edit that was made was clearly done to clarify a specific, technical name for a technology called “Wide Area Persistent Surveillance Systems.” A short PBS feature on wide area persistent surveillance systems shows that these are some of the most high-resolution surveillance cameras available.

The PBS video doesn’t show off much of the technology, but even the most basic reveal of the tech—in this case, a camera sensor called ARGUS, named after the 100-eyed giant from Greek mythology—demonstrates that these systems can have a resolution of up to 1.8 gigapixels, meaning that ARGUS can take a photo from a drone that will cover a 15 square mile radius. It can capture video, and zoom in on specific parts to zoom in on particular individuals or vehicles. ARGUS can even capture details as small as a bird flying over a parking lot.

So, this is some pretty high-level high-tech shit. The fact that the American government already has the technology to throw up a drone and capture live, high-resolution footage of a medium-sized city is pretty insane. The privacy and security ramifications of this are, obviously, immense. And, it’s not really the type of conversation that Canada’s Department of National Defense needs to be associated with, if you look at it from a purely PR standpoint.

I reached out to the Department of National Defense, to see if this was in fact just some bored worker or if someone in the department somehow ordered this minor edit to be made. After a back-and-forth with the department’s media relations team, I was given this official statement: “...all I can confirm to you is that, though Wikipedia provides a wide array of content that is produced or gathered by different users, it is not an official source of information for the Department of National Defense and Canadian Armed Forces.”

Given the sheer size of the department, the Department of National Defense was unable to pinpoint who made that specific edit. But clearly, the optics of this modification, to an article about mass surveillance, is somewhat unfortunate. What it does tell us is that mass surveillance and its various technologies has its own set of nerds and geeks, just like comics, sci-fi, and video games do. And it’s no surprise that some of those people are going to end up working in the military-industrial complex. But with so much scrutiny being placed on what our government does to Wikipedia (the surveillance edit was tweeted out yesterday, and got a modest amount of attention), employee ennui might need to be redirected to Sudoku or Angry Birds, instead of encyclopedia edits on behalf of the military.

Follow Patrick McGuire on Twitter.