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The Grill: WikiScanner creator Virgil Griffith

The tech provocateur talks about exposing the wicked, staying out of trouble and designing machines that can feel.

By Julia King
April 20, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Virgil Griffith is a doctoral candidate in computation and neural systems at the California Institute of Technology. He has been called a troublemaker, twerp, agitator and provocateur. As a teenager, he tried to sue his school over a drug-testing policy. Later, he was sued by Blackboard Inc. for exposing flaws in its campus ID software system. Griffith is perhaps best known as the creator of WikiScanner, which makes it possible to figure out who has made edits to a Wikipedia entry.

What are you working on now? The Tor2Web project I've been working on with [friend] Aaron Swartz is potentially a really big deal, but people don't understand it. People are familiar with Tor and how it allows you to access Web sites anonymously. I can search Google without Google knowing who I am.


Virgil Griffith
Name: Virgil Griffith
Title: Doctoral candidate
Organization: California Institute of Technology
Location: Pasadena, Calif.
Favorite technology: The Python programming language
In high school he was: "Idealistic, reckless and long-haired."
Ambition: "Create a machine who feels. Immanentize the eschaton."
Favorite nonwork pastime: "Jacuzzi tubs."
Philosophy in a nutshell: "The world is your playground. Shape it -- don't let it shape you."

OK, everybody knows that. What they don't know is that there's this very obscure feature which allows you to host a site within Tor itself. If you're on Tor and want to access a Web site not on Tor, it "anonymizes" your connection. If both Web sites are on Tor, it anonymizes both sides. It's a very bizarre way to work. It's the online equivalent of meeting in a dark alley. That's interesting. I have no idea what will happen, but it will be really exciting.

WikiScanner makes it possible to figure out who has edited Wikipedia entries. Was that what you set out to do? The tongue-in-cheek answer is that WikiScanner was created to create minor public disasters for organizations I don't like. I got the idea from seeing that congressmen were caught hiring staffers to whitewash Wikipedia pages. My thought was, let's just nip this in the bud. Let's just stop this behavior that is egregious and totally unacceptable. Everybody knew that companies were editing their own pages. I thought it was utterly hilarious to have them all exposed, to have them completely powerless and caught with their skirts up.

Don't you think it's ironic that a former hacker whose current project is creating anonymity on the Internet once helped police Internet behavior? Yeah, I really like the irony in that. But I'm no official authority. I have no role; I just do my own thing. Actually, I don't do these things. I make tools that allow other people to do these things. This is the only way I'm able to stay on the good side of everything. With WikiScanner, all the crazy liberal and conservative blogs were all just so excited to avenge their evil enemies. If I did all the [work myself], they would have said, "Oh, that's just Virgil." People wouldn't have been so happy.

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