THEY are the Wikipedia timewasters, anonymous cyber-vandals who use one of the internet's greatest resources to abuse rivals, spread gossip and cause widespread confusion.
But Scotland on Sunday can today reveal that many of the culprits are staff at major companies, councils, government departments and other organisations who spend their time sabotaging the free online encyclopaedia rather than working.
From the Prince of Wales's official residence to British Airways, the Ministry of Defence and Aberdeenshire Council, this newspaper has established precise numbers, times and details of how employees used work computers to anonymously edit Wikipedia articles, often to spread abuse, bigotry and outright nonsense.
Among the biggest Wikipedia timewasters in the UK appear to be MoD employees, who were responsible for more than 4,600 anonymous edits in the past four years.
They included 100 entries about Formula One, contributions about the 1970s cartoon series Captain Caveman and several disparaging references to Scots Pop Idol winner Michelle McManus.
MoD computers have been used to edit the entry on the Faslane Peace Camp, claiming the submarine base was vital to the local economy and that if the nuclear base left, the campaigners would find something else to complain about.
Wikipedia was founded in 2001 and currently has two million English articles, all of them written and edited by computer users around the world. The site has always been vulnerable to abuse and last week it emerged the CIA had edited articles including those relating to casualty levels in Iraq.
Many malicious editors of Wikipedia try to mask their identities, but using sophisticated scanning software, Scotland on Sunday has traced thousands of edits back to hundreds of organisations, several of which last night launched investigations to track down those responsible.
Computers operated by Scotland's local authorities were used in 16,190 Wikipedia edits in the past four years.
Top of the league is Aberdeenshire with 2,004 changes. They were used to make no fewer than 12 entries about Jaffa Cakes, along with a comment that all "neds" are "gay".
In second place was South Lanarkshire Council, which recorded 1,505 Wiki edits, including obscene and bigoted remarks about Celtic FC and Rangers owner David Murray.
Perhaps one of the most surprising sources for anonymous Wiki editing is Clarence House, the home of the Prince of Wales. An enthusiastic linguist at the royal residence added a paragraph on the usage of the Australian greeting "G'Day", while another remarked on the sexuality of a Surrey businessman.
In addition, a computer on the network of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission was used to make comments about Rangers, calling them "the world's most bigoted football club". And a Scottish Parliament computer was used to change Tory MSP Phil Gallie's date of birth to 1839.
British Airways computers have been used to make anonymous edits about the 2005 Helios air crash north of Athens, which killed all 121 on board. Meanwhile, a BBC computer was used to remove criticism of its iPlayer software.
Computers at the Law Society of Scotland have been used to make anonymous edits which removed a paragraph which was critical of them.
Wikipedia is also being used as a weapon in disputes within organisations. Lesley Hinds, chairwoman of NHS Health Scotland, was criticised in an anonymous, ungrammatical and misspelt Wikipedia posting which came from an NHS Health Scotland computer.
It said: "Health Scotland is under the relocation review which will most likely see it being moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Lesley Hinds appears to support this which is surprising since she is meant to represent the interests of Edinburgh in her Lord Provost role. When this policy was released it was expected she would of resigned is [sic] protest but instead has continued working in both jobs."
Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: "Most employers would expect anyone wanting to edit Wikipedia to do it at home and in their own time. Employers are not Attila the Huns who will ban everything and they accept a little bit of give and take, but it is hard to see how vandalising Wikipedia pages is acceptable. A ringleader for this kind of activity could even find themselves being dismissed."
Andre Coner, a consultant with computer security firm Commissum, said: "It's a myth that everyone is anonymous online. They're not. In order for you to send and receive information, the various servers need to know where your computer is."
Spokeswomen for both the MoD and the Scottish Parliament said they were aware of the issue and were looking into the origin of the offending edits. A BA spokesman said it was also looking into the issue.
And South Lanarkshire Council pledged "appropriate action".
However, a spokeswoman for Aberdeenshire Council suggested that most of the edits would have come from youngsters using school computers and members of the public using library machines.
A spokeswoman for the Law Society of Scotland said it had removed inaccurate and outdated criticism and that since the number beside the edit could be identified as belonging to the Law Society it could not be construed as anonymous.
Cut and run
January 31, 2006, 6.58pm
A user going by the name of Sjharte, who identifies himself as being an Edinburgh-based lawyer, added the following paragraph to the Wikipedia page on the Law Society of Scotland.
"There has been criticism of the Law Society of Scotland from some sections of the Scottish public citing the level of complaints by members of the public against Scottish solicitors. The Scottish Executive has instituted studies into regulation of the Scottish legal profession."
February 8, 7.11pm
An anonymous writer deletes the paragraph. The edit can be traced to a computer on the Law Society of Scotland network.
Another Wikipedia editor, under the name of ALoan, restores the critical paragraph.
February 17, 1.22pm
Again an anonymous writer deletes the paragraph of criticism. Again from a computer on the Law Society of Scotland network.
February 19, 10.17pm
"Sjharte" edits the page to bring back the paragraph.
February 23, 5.27pm
Again an edit is made from a Law Society computer.
"Sjharte" puts the critical paragraph back in.
March 24, 3.18pm
Anonymous but traceable. The Law Society computer is used to wipe out the paragraph again.
Sjharte has another go, adding the critical paragraph and branding the anonymous edits as "vandalism".
April 13 ,2006, 10.56am
Resistance is useless. Again the criticism is blanked out. Again the edit is anonymous. Again it can be traced to a Law Society of Scotland computer.
WHAT IS WIKISCANNER?
Wikiscanner allows users to hunt for anonymous edits which came from computers at the networks of various organisations.
This is the basic Wikiscanner link, enjoy: wikiscanner.virgil.gr
This is the link which takes the user to all the anonymous edits originating with computers on Ministry of Defence networks:
This is the link which takes the user to all the anonymous edits originating with computers on British Airways networks:
This is for the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission: