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Monday, March 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Altered photos becoming harder to spot

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Anyone who haunts online forums knows the routine. Someone posts a startling or outrageous photograph, and within moments a response pops up with the accusatory subject line, "Photoshop!"

Remember the snapshot of the "tourist guy" supposedly atop the World Trade Center as a doomed 9/11 jetliner approached in the background? Graphic artists immediately discredited the picture.

Responding to photos of daredevil stunts, extreme-sports forums come up with particularly inflammatory threads. Urban-legend Web sites contain galleries of faked animal and circus-freak images.

Most recently, a bogus photograph showing a young John Kerry sitting alongside Jane Fonda got brief circulation before being discredited. So common has digital alteration become that Photoshop now rivals Google as the Web's leading product-turned-verb.

As someone who spent much of my frustrated youth trying to convince Kansas cousins that professional wrestling was faked, I've always taken great interest in the veracity of images. As a journalist, I've been party to debates over the ethics of even small alterations to news photos.

I've always carried the reassurance, though, that at least faked images could be detected fairly easily. In the Kerry/Fonda situation, a Web logger, Sisyphus Shrugged, offered a detailed (and amusing) deconstruction of the image, pointing out kerning, gray-scale and resolution giveaways.

So I was somewhat disturbed when graphics experts told me that it's getting harder in a digital environment to determine image fakery. So sophisticated are retouching tools becoming that detection is no longer a simple step of blowing up an image's pixels.

As an example, I sent a digital photo — purported to be of a Santa Cruz, Calif., man holding up a 250-pound mountain lion — to a leading Photoshop and image specialist, San Francisco-based Gerald Bybee.

To my mind, the image is obviously bogus. The lion's head is upright, and its legs and tail are sticking straight out rather than hanging limp — not the pose one would expect from a dead animal.

But Bybee said it wasn't obvious the photo was faked. One problem was its degraded quality. The image was so rough that any magnification turned it to mud. Still, there were no obvious lighting or resolution giveaways, Bybee said. (Efforts to track down the origin of the photo were unsuccessful.)
Seattle graphics legend Tim Girvin offered a similar assessment. Because one can digitally copy dot (pixel) patterns precisely, Girvin said, "it's very difficult to tell the real image from the fake."

Bybee detected some fuzziness around the mountain lion's belly that may have spelled manipulation. Girvin found shadow irregularities.

Both questioned the authenticity of the photo, but more on content grounds rather than any obvious digital manipulation.

The sophistication of copying technology is one reason counterfeiting and ID theft continue to spread, experts say. The same technology that enables spectacular special effects in photos can camouflage tampering when used for criminal purposes.

If there's a hopeful side to the situation, it's that the collective expertise of the Web itself will continue to work in truth's favor. Adapted to the Internet, Abraham Lincoln's observation about the inability to fool all of the people all of the time is especially encouraging.

Could Photoshop undo a deception it has wrought? In the 1993 movie of Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun," lab specialists painstakingly break down a video image to show it's been tampered with. Perhaps Adobe or some other software maker will come up with a program that can scan a photo and automatically determine where it's been altered.

Until then, we'll have to rely on the million-eyed Internet to spot and expose deception. As the Sisyphus Shrugged blogger (who prefers to go unnamed) told me, digital deceivers "don't realize what a bad job they're doing. God help us if they ever get really sophisticated."

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at

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