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16:00

From tornadoes to Noxema: Hany Farid on using digital forensics to assess the authenticity of photos

Late last month, when tornado-like, end-times-are-nigh-style winds sliced through New York City, Time magazine posted to its NewsFeed an image of a twister forming in the waters beyond the Statue of Liberty — menacing, dark, grainy. The story the mag published — “Gotham Tornado: Amazing Photo of Twister Passing Statue of Liberty” — let the image in question pretty much speak for itself, with the only text accompanying the photo being its headline and twelve SEO-friendly tags. Turns out, though, that the graininess of the image was a symptom not of camera-phone authenticity, but of old age: The photo was shot in 1976.

Time’s mistake — the overzealous posting of an image that, given its context, would seem to be authentic — is one that almost any news organization could make. How, after all, do we check the accuracy of news images, particularly in moments of breaking-news urgency? Though we’re seeing a blossoming of fact-checking in text-based journalism, we have yet to see an equivalent movement in image-based news reporting — mostly, of course, because we lack good tools for determining whether images are authentic or manipulated, whether they depict what they claim to or something else entirely. Which is disturbing, given that we look to images — the raw material of the world, supposedly filtered only through a camera’s lens — to give us an unvarnished view of human events.

Enter Hany Farid. A computer science professor at Dartmouth, Farid is a pioneer in the field of digital forensics, figuring out how to analyze images to determine their authenticity. (Think CSI: Photojournalism.) In his day-to-day work, Farid deals with the algorithmic aspects of photo manipulation — how to translate light and shadow, for example, into data sets that will detect whether a particular image could actually exist in the real world.

“The issues of photo manipulation are going well beyond just the technical, mathematical, geek stuff,” Farid notes. “We’re struggling as a society to deal with what happens when this thing that we have learned to trust over so many years” — the photographic image — “becomes incredibly untrustworthy. And that, to me, is extremely interesting.”

The biggest element of mistrust is the increasing prevalence of manipulation, via Photoshop and other tools. While, most often, those programs are used to create basic composites, or ironically derivative images (cf: Rebecca Gayheart’s Noxemas, courtesy of Gawker), more and more, they’re also being used to produce composites designed to mislead the viewer. Take a tabloid photo of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt on a beach, which seems, at first, true to its caption: “CAUGHT TOGETHER!” Study the image closely, though — actually analyze it — and it becomes apparent that the photo is doctored: Its stars are lit from opposite sides. The image is a combination of two separate photos of the couple merged together through the magic of image-layering. (See more about this photo here.)

One problem is that our brains simply don’t seem to be wired for the kind of bit-by-bit observation such analysis requires. On the contrary: When it comes to images, our minds — which tend to interpret images as singular units, rather than composites of atomic ones — can often abet manipulation. “Your brain is remarkable, but it has some pretty serious limitations,” Farid says. And one of those limitations is image assessment. On sabbatical last year in Berkeley, he worked with neuroscientists and vision scientists, studying the limits of the visual system. In general, “people tend to over-trust their eye…and that’s a very dangerous game to be playing.”

Now, photo-tampering is becoming so prevalent, Farid notes, that mistrust of images is slowly becoming our default. “There’s almost a backlash,” he says, “and now there’s this over-skepticism of everything out there. It’s amazing.”

Digital forensics — shifting the analysis of images from an art to a science — is one way for images to earn back our trust. Forensic techniques “can help bring some sanity to this.” And the field “just continues to get more and more sophisticated,” Farid notes. “We’re able to do things today that a few years ago seemed unimaginable. And a few years from now, we’ll do something that, today, seems unimaginable.” Farid and his team have been developing software that can be used — by news organizations, in particular — to analyze the authenticity of images before publishing them. It’ll be a few years before that software is ready to be used, he notes; but “we are just getting to the stage where, I think, commercialization is viable.”

That’s a good thing, because the need for rigorous analysis of images is, and will continue to be, increasingly urgent. “It used to be, if you had a handful of photojournalists around the country, you could have some kind of quality control,” Farid points out. But now — “when everybody’s got a cell phone with video and images and they’re posting on their blogs, and to Twitter and YouTube” — the ethics of photojournalism are being tested and shifted. An analytic platform could bring a sense of universality back to those principles. “The issue with photo manipulation is that it’s not black-and-white,” Farid notes. “There are certain types of photo manipulation which are completely acceptable — and there are other ones that are completely unacceptable.” Images have always held a powerful place in journalism, of course, and “you’ve always been able to editorialize with photographs.” But now, Farid says, “it’s a question of degree.” Now, using images, “you can really change the entire story. And that, obviously, is a very different beast.”

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