Cummings tried to rewrite history. The internet had other ideas

Jonathan Brady-WPA Pool/Getty Images

It’s the story that keeps on going. Yes, Dominic Cummings went to Durham. Yes, Dominic Cummings went to Barnard Castle. And yes, he did both these things when the government advice was to stay at home and not leave – especially if you believed you had coronavirus. But now, amongst the mess of untruths and misrepresentations, another curiosity has emerged: Cummings claims he predicted the coronavirus pandemic.
“Last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning,” he told reporters at a press conference on Monday. That was disproven by evidence showing he added sections on this just last month, straight after leaving his Durham retreat. What Cummings – who has cultivated a reputation as the only brainiac in the dim-witted Westminster bubble – seems to have forgotten is that the internet never forgets. Never.


“What really strikes me about this story is how some pretty straightforward open source research skills were used to reveal important details,” explains Yvonne McDermott Rees, a lecturer in law at Swansea University. Cummings’ latest inaccuracy was spotted by Jens Wiechers, a data scientist, who ran Cummings’s blog posts through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
The Wayback Machine works by sending out web crawlers to a huge number of websites and capturing what each page on that website looks like on any given day. The snapshots are then stored by the Internet Archive, a US-based digital library, and are accessible to anyone who types in the address. Not every page on the world wide web is captured by the Wayback Machine, but Cummings’ blog just happened to have been captured. McDemott Rees calls the Wayback Machine a vital tool for investigators. “It can be used to look up how webpages appeared in the past, even where they have since been amended or deleted, or where the domain name has expired,” she says. “It’s like a digital form of time travel.”
The Wayback Machine shows that Cummings added two paragraphs about Ebola and SARS to a post on his blog between April 9 and May 3.
However, another open source intelligence (OSINT) tool – and a tantalising trail of digital breadcrumbs – narrows down the data even further. XML data, generated when a page is changed, indicates that the change was made on 14 April, the day Cummings returned to London from Durham. Presented with the evidence, Downing Street sources have been forced to partially backtrack on Cummings’ claims about the blog posts, saying that, while the post did not directly mention coronaviruses, it linked to an article that did.


The blogpost tampering is doubly embarrassing for Cummings, who has a profound admiration for so-called “superforecasters”, people who have an exceptional knack for predicting upcoming events and trends. It’s less “forecasting” when you actually change your predictions after the event.
However, Cummings should at least have forecast that his sneaky editing would have been caught out. “The digital crumbs we leave behind us can help verify or disprove statements made by those who hold power – and anyone with the interest and time to learn how to do this can easily check such facts for themselves,” says Sam Dubberley, head of evidence lab at Amnesty International.
That isn’t the only digital clue that has tested Cummings’s and the government’s claims to near-breaking point. Despite the sojourn north taking place more than a month ago, and reporters from The Guardian and Daily Mirror asking the government questions about Cummings’ movements for several weeks, the trip wasn’t deemed worth mentioning publicly by Number 10 until journalists broke the story on May 22. However, evidence of it existed ever since Cummings was in the north east: Durham residents posted on Twitter that they had seen, or had been told someone had seen, the adviser in Durham on the days he is known to have been outside London.
And digital traces helped Robin Lees, the 70-year-old retired chemistry teacher who saw Cummings in Barnard Castle in mid-April, confirm it definitely was the prime minister’s adviser who he saw. Lees took note of the number plate of the car Cummings was driving, then checked it on the internet when he returned home, finding it was linked to Cummings. “The story reveals how the verification of narratives – previously the preserve of journalists and investigators – can now be done by anyone with a computer, time, and some lateral thinking skills,” says McDermott. “The digital nature of our lives mean that details are scattered like breadcrumbs over the internet, and those digital fragments can be pieced together to reveal the bigger picture.”


OSINT data gathered by social media users has been used to question characterisations of Cummings’ trip to the north-east, too. In his press conference defending his actions, Cummings claimed he made a half-hour round trip to Barnard Castle from his parents’ home in Durham to test his eyesight (which some legal experts have said would likely breach driving legislation). The trip, which was initially presented as a drive to Barnard Castle and back without stopping, had to be halted when Cummings arrived in the town because he claimed to feel sick, needing to sit on a bench for a while.
Cynics of that theory have pointed out that the trip to Barnard Castle suspiciously happened on the same day Cummings’ wife celebrated her 45th birthday: April 12. That data was gleaned from documents filed on Companies House, the record of all limited companies registered in the UK. Wakefield was once a director of a non-profit, and as such had to fill out information including her date of birth in official documents.
“Cummings found himself at the pointy end of a very modern phenomenon, the social justice OSINT bot,” says James Linton, a social engineer and threat researcher. Linton calls it “the crowdsourced weapon of choice against clips of racists; politicians’ denials; and anything and everything else deemed to be in the greater public’s interest.”
The speed at which his claims have been questioned and criticised are because of the distributed power of the internet, reckons Linton. “OSINT on this scale and with this speed and flexibility can currently only be done using the human intelligence ‘logic engine’ in a public forum, such as Twitter,” he says.
Number 10 was approached to comment for this story but did not respond by the time of publication. Cummings also did not respond to several email requests. The worry for both will be that this isn’t the end of the revelations. “People will be digging around,” says Eliot Higgins, the founder of OSINT journalism collective. “I know there are people looking for every little mention. If something is out there, it will be found.”
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