Spotting the Photoshop fakes

“I think Reuters took a big hit,” he said. Reuters’ reaction was swift and unforgiving: Hajj was unceremoniously dumped, and his library of photos was deleted, despite his claims of innocence. Pinney said Reuters did the right thing, and claims he’d have done the same had the scandal hit Getty. The fallout from a faked image could be “catastrophic” for a news agency, he warned.

Media organisations were duped again in the summer of 2008, when news outlets around the world, including the New York Times and the BBC, ran an image distributed by Agence France-Presse showing the successful launch of four Iranian ballistic missiles.

The image was produced by state-run Sepah News, but closer inspection revealed a surprise: the smoke plumes from two of the missiles were almost identical. While a degree of similarity could be expected from the simultaneous launch of two identical missiles, the arrangement of the image’s pixels pointed to one thing: one of the missiles had failed on its launcher and an Iranian official, keen to avoid international embarrassment, cloned one of the successful launches over the top.

Crop 2

Turi Munthe is CEO at Demotix, a citizen journalist website that takes freelance contributions from around the world and distributes them, both on its own site and to mainstream media organisations.

It has some significant scoops to its name: it owns the only image of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr, head of Harvard University’s DuBois Institute for African and American Studies, who was mistaken for a burglar by police after Gates himself reported a break-in at his house. The arrest swiftly exploded into a national scandal about racism in the police force. So how does Munthe ensure Demotix’s 5,000 contributors are delivering original, unmodified images?

“We’re very, very careful about the material that comes our way,” he said. “We need to be absolutely clear that Photoshop hasn’t had a material impact on the truth of the image.” Demotix checks for plagiarism, for instance, by scanning the metadata produced by the photographer’s camera.

All digital cameras append extra data to their images. This EXIF (EXchangeable Image Format) data includes information such as when an image was taken, the name of the camera model and, if the camera is suitably equipped, a geotag revealing where the picture was taken. This on its own is often enough to catch those who falsely claim to have covered an event.

Demotix also uses a service called TinEye, which markets itself as a “reverse image search engine”. When an image is submitted to TinEye, a digital watermark is created and checked against the site’s database of more than a billion images – the theory being that if a photographer is submitting an image that already exists, even if it’s been edited, TinEye will find it. “You can check for plagiarism spectacularly easily,” said Munthe.

Lie detectors
So if an image already exists it will be caught. But is it possible to automate the detection of images with elements added or removed? If such a system ever arrives, it’s possible it will come from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where Professor Hany Farid and his team are working on a set of algorithms designed to detect edited images.

Farid’s work, which is part-funded by Adobe, aims to automatically analyse images to detect irregularities. “One of the things I see recurring over and over again is either taking something out of an image or putting something into an image,” said Farid.

In 2004, for instance, a photo dating from the 1970s emerged showing Presidential candidate John Kerry sharing a stage with Jane Fonda at an anti-war rally. The photo enraged US conservatives and did untold damage to Kerry’s campaign. But the photo was a fake – a composite of a photo of Kerry taken by Ken Light in 1971, and one of Fonda, taken by Owen Franken for Corbis images the year after.

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