I became, in the 1970s, the best ocean swimmer in the world. I held every major record on planet earth, out in the open sea.
—Diana Nyad, 7 Oct 2019
While compiling a list of the real best ocean swimmers of the decade, I headed over to Openwaterpedia — “the Wikipedia for the open water swimming world” — looking for more data about listees. I began with Lynne Cox and Tina Bischoff. Cox set English Channel records in 1972 and ’73, Bischoff in ’76. But something was off with their Openwaterpedia entries: they showed Cox and Bischoff swimming the English Channel in the sixties. As a matter of fact, their entries showed neither of them completing a single swim in the 1970s.
I assumed this to be an isolated problem and an easy fix. Just in case, though, I visited Sandra Bucha’s page. Bucha dominated pro swimming between 1973 and 1975. She won every race she entered, beating Diana Nyad by at least thirty minutes whenever they went head-to-head.
According to the list under “Professional Marathon Swimming Career,” Sandra Bucha hadn’t completed a single race in the 1970s:
So I visited the entries for all of the best swimmers of the decade. With only two exceptions, Openwaterpedia showed none of them completing a single swim in the 1970s.
Eventually, I learned that
- a vandal hiding behind multiple accounts sabotaged thousands of entries. The culprit may have had programming help, but the damage had a sole instigator.
- the vandal sabotaged all of those pages in the service of a single goal: erase from the 1970s all the swims of the greatest swimmers of the era. With that done, Diana Nyad could reasonably declare herself the best marathon swimmer of the decade.
Briefly, here’s how the hacker did it. He or she used a simple but ingenious algorithm to zero in on the entries of swimmers from the 1970s: the vandal changed every “7” to a “6.” This effectively moved all seventies swims into the sixties. The algorithm made other edits, too — for instance, it changed every “3” to a “4” — but the hacker used those alterations to divert attention from the real targets.
Note: At least one knowledgeable person disagrees with my theory about the vandal’s purpose. However, even if the hack had another purpose besides fulfilling Diana Nyad’s best-of-the-seventies fantasy, that’s what it did.
A marathon swimming hack by the numbers
For the whole story, we need to go back to the beginning of Openwaterpedia.
On May 9, 2011, Steven Munatones, Openwaterpedia’s creator and primary administrator, registers the site’s first username, “Admin.” On the same day, the Admin account makes the first entry in Openwaterpedia’s Patrol log.
Two weeks later, the vandal creates four accounts — Jolyn12, MarcyMacD, AlexArevalo, and GlennMiller. These account names establish that the vandal knows his or her way around open water:
- Jolyn12: Jolyn Clothing, women’s swimsuit maker. Site / OWP
- MarcyMacD: Marcy MacDonald, Triple-Crown swimmer. MSF / OWP
- AlexArevalo: Alex Arévalo, New York Open Water board member. NYOW / OWP
- GlennMiller: Glenn Miller, bandleader and musician who “was the best-selling recording artist from 1939 to 1942.” He disappeared over the English Channel in 1944 (Wikipedia).
In April, the culprit will create two more accounts:
- TomBell: Tom Bell, Triple-Crown swimmer. MSF / OWP
- KCassidy: Kevin Cassidy, another Triple-Crowner. MSF/ OWP
The vandal creates the first four accounts between 11:20 a.m. and 12:00 noon on February 15. Before finishing up, however, the hacker uses the AlexArevalo account to test the waters:
- 11:49 a.m.: AlexArevalo makes legitimate fixes to Achilleas Tsimpogiannis.
- 11:55 a.m.: AlexArevalo vandalizes Antonio Abertondo with seemingly random changes to letters and numbers.
- 12:08 a.m.: GlennMiller vandalizes Abdull Latif Abo-Heif with random number changes.
The saboteur then lays low for six days, perhaps to make sure that no one’s watching. Satisfied that the coast is clear, the vandal gets serious. On February 21 at 4:20 p.m. (a little joke?), the Jolyn12 account makes its first edit, adding a legitimate link — http://www.openwaterswimming.com — to the page of ice swimmer Gerrit Curcio.
A few hours later, Jolyn12 moves on to Adam Moine. The vandal has decided to make Adam — another joke? — their test subject. The saboteur wants to perfect a program that will visit a page, find every occurrence of one specific number, then change it to another specific number.
In just over half an hour, Jolyn12 edits Moine’s page four times:
- 7:07 p.m.: Adds Daily News of Open Water Swimming (DNOWS) link. [comparison]
- 7:11 p.m.: Runs a program that changes every “3” to a “4.” The program also changes every “a” to a “4” and every “b” to a “3.”
- 7:14 p.m.: Undoes the last revision, perhaps because it overshot the goal. The vandal doesn’t strike again for 25 minutes, plenty of time to revise some code.
- 7:39 p.m.: Runs a new version that does nothing but change every “3” to a “4.” Bingo!
On March 2, the saboteur prepares a new substitution, the one that will dredge a decade for Diana. Jolyn12 visits the page of Brazilian swimmer Abilio Couto and, for the first time, changes every “7” to a “6.”
Now the real erasing can begin. Under the guise of Jolyn12 and, later, KCassidy, the vandal alters 3318 pages.
S/he makes too many changes in too short a time, however, to have made them all manually, so the majority of the changes had to have been made by a bot:
BOTS: According to the MediaWiki manual (both Openwaterpedia and Wikipedia run on the MediaWiki platform), “Bots are automated tools that can be used to perform tedious work or certain repetitive tasks related to a wiki.” Bots can also be used for vandalism.
For a bot to gain access to a wiki, an administrator must approve that access.
The main vandalism begins on February 21 with Jolyn12 and continues through March and April, finishing up with a KCassidy spree. Below are the number of pages that the Jolyn12 and KCassidy accounts edited. The other four vandal accounts struck only 12 pages in all.
|Feb 21||Mar 2-4||April 15||April 20-24|
Jolyn12 and KCassidy used the same algorithm, so we can infer that a single saboteur implemented the scheme.
The Jolyn12 account made all of its significant changes on March 3 and 4. By sandwiching those changes between the February and April attacks, the vandal made the fifteen main targets almost impossible to spot.
Our saboteur, however, was not all business. Perhaps beginning with “4:20” and “Adam,” the vandal displayed a sense of humor. The TomBell account visited Antonio Argüelles’s page and changed the words “car,” “finance,” “education,” “talks,” “standards,” “videos,” and “degrees” to the word “hamburgers.” The same account changed the phrase “indomitable spirit” to “delicious hamburgers.” And, in a demonstration of lingual respect, it changed both“[D]esarollo” and “grado” to “hamburguesa.”
To add to the fun, someone — perhaps the hacker creating another diversion — opened almost 40,000 spam accounts in 2019. By comparison, only 17 spam accounts popped up in all of the previous three years. (I call them “spam” accounts because few edited entries other than their own user pages, nor did they do any damage.) Among the spam accounts, the vandal scattered humorous usernames like SeymourBzm, Dauphindudésert (“Desert dolphin”), and TahliaSnowball.
The Targets: (Almost) All of the Best of the ’70s
With two exceptions, the hacker sabotaged the pages of every International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF) inductee active in the 1970s.
Here’s who got changed:
Did the vandal visit Diana?
Yes! For the plan to work, Nyad’s 1970s swims had to remain in their decade of origin. So her page received two visits, perhaps to give the illusion of being hacked or perhaps because the first visit was a mistake:
March 3, 10:39 p.m.:
turtJolyn12 moves all of Nyad’s 1970s swims into the 1960s.
March 3, 10:48 p.m.:
turtJolyn12 moves all of Nyad’s 1970s swims back to the 1970s.
Of the 3318 pages that Jolyn12 and KCassidy damaged, they reverted only fifteen. Of those fifteen, Nyad’s was the only entry for a swimmer active in the 1970s.
Repercussions for the IMSHOF
The vandal sabotaged the pages of over 75% of IMSHOF swimming inductees. The IMSHOF website links its honorees to each of their Openwaterpedia entries. Visitors to the IMSHOF site assume that its information is reliable. Between March and November of last year, much of it was not. [NOTE: By August 2020, the IMSHOF had stopped linking honorees to their Openwaterpedia entries.]
Openwaterpedia didn’t begin repairing the damage in earnest until mid-November. Up to that time, an IMSHOF site visitor researching marathon swimming would have found that Diana Nyad was one of the greatest marathon swimmers of the seventies. Most of those visitors — students, journalists, and other interested parties — wouldn’t have thought to look elsewhere to confirm Openwaterpedia’s data.
Steven Munatones has apparently taken steps to limit future damage to Openwaterpedia. Site administrators now receive notifications whenever a user edits a page. He and other admins have corrected errors in the entries of IMSHOF inductees, but the damage to thousands of other pages remains.
Some pages the vandal skipped
Five excellent ’70s marathoners not in the IMSHOF:
The two IMSHOF inductees he/she/they left alone:
Of all the greatest swimmers of the seventies, the vandal only passed over Penny Dean and Cindy Cleveland. I can’t say for sure why. What I can say, though, is that during the 1970s, Penny and Cindy were both Southern California-based marathon swimmers, and they often trained with Steven Munatones. I can also say that Steven once called Penny his idol. So, perhaps whoever hacked Openwaterpedia thought it best — or was told — to leave Penny and Cindy alone.
For a summary of all of the above information, along with additional facts about the hack, please see Operation Hamburger Helper synopsis. In the next post, I’ll look at who might have instigated the sabotage.
Updated 24 June 2022 for readability.