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Why cryptographically signed photos matter

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Abraham Lincoln’s image was an altered version of an image of John C. Calhoun. (US Library of Congress)

A picture used to be worth a thousand words. Today it can be worth millions of votes, to spark a backlash against immigrants or lead to having your work showcased on a stage to some of the world’s most photo respected editors and curators.

Visuals are powerful, and weaponizing visuals to spread misinformation is as old as the medium itself, from false advertisement to propaganda, to passing on doctored visuals in good faith as satire and art or doing it as a prank for the lulz. With the prevalence of cheaper and easier-to-use technology and the threshold to manipulating photos and video becoming lower, it brings with it new tools for creatives and new opportunities for bad actors to manipulate others for their own goals.

One may think it’s a modern problem, but history is peppered with examples. After his death, Abraham Lincoln’s head was pasted onto the body of John C. Calhoun and passed off as an authentic image. Over a century later, TV Guide would do the same to Oprah Winfrey’s head and Ann-Margret’s body.

In 1989 TV Guide published this composite image of Oprah Winfrey’s head over a publicity shot of Ann-Margret. The photo comes from a ‘Rockette’ special Ann-Margret did about ten years prior. (TV Guide, Rockette)

Recent examples have involved the malicious editing of Parkland High School students speaking out against gun violence to make them appear to tear up the US Constitution, adding smoke to make the aftermath of a 2006 Israeli air strike on Beirut to make it appear more dramatic, or the misuse of an image of Barack Obama as proof of #pizzagate.

Then there are others who have used these tools in creative ways, such as to playfully recast Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland in Back to the Future, or when they want to get something across that is totally surreal.

The old meme, pics or it didn’t happen, no longer applies

Sony recently announced a new update to Sony a7 IV camera systems, allowing commercial customers to implement in-camera forgery-proof photo technology designed to help secure images against unauthorized manipulation and guarantee provenance. This isn’t the first foray into a tech solution to verify original visuals from edited, or doctored, if your intent is malicious, images.

In the video above, YouTube userr EZRyderX47 recasts Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland in the lead roles of Back to the Future. If you were seeing this clip for the first time, would you be able to tell that it had been manipulated?

Canon’s Original Decision Data, a cryptographic system then used by the AP and law enforcement to verify images as authentic, was cracked in 2010. A few months later, Nikon’s Image Authentication System, which courts and police used, was also cracked. Like Sony’s current effort, both of these technologies aimed to address a growing problem that has only exploded since the mid-2000s.

It remains to be seen if Sony’s new process is a hardware or a software solution and if it’ll fair better than earlier industry efforts. Still, the continued attempt to address the issue hits on a common underlying question: How do we ensure that seeing is believing as technology has advanced?

As a photojournalist and filmmaker who has also run departments at major publications, the fear of a future where we can’t be certain what we’re uncovering can be verified is troubling. Ethics are a cornerstone of journalism; it’s how we transparently earn the trust of readers and viewers that what we present is verified, trustworthy, unbiased reporting. When journalists run the risk of having our work altered without our knowledge, or we are unable to verify work and lead to believe it is authentic, it undermines our credibility. It erodes the trust you have put into us, and without that trust, we can’t make informed decisions on the things that affect us and are at the whim of bad actors who aim to use us to get to their own means.

Ethics are a cornerstone of journalism; it’s how we transparently earn the trust of readers and viewers that what we present is verified, trustworthy, unbiased reporting.

A means to create tamper-proof verification technology allows photo agencies and journalists to verify images, will enable courts to enter images as evidence, allows businesses to protect their copyright, allows public figures to protect their reputations and empowers viewers to know how to check for misinformation.

In addition to the camera makers, others are attempting to address the gap. In partnership with Twitter and the New York Times, Adobe launched The Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI) in 2019, an open-source, cross-industry effort to establish tools for securing image metadata and verifying authenticity. With partners from the AP, Getty Images, BCC, The Washington Post, Stern, Microsoft, Leica, Nikon and others, the effort is built from the ground up with journalists and consumers in mind.

Unlike camera maker efforts, which have been proprietary and business-driven (‘Hey oil company, use our cameras and host your own database of certificates so you can issue takedown notices if an activist group uses your photos.’), the CAI effort considers transparency a tool for the public to verify independently, while also taking into consideration journalistic concerns over the safety of photojournalists and the privacy and protection of our sources.

These efforts from Sony and the CAI fascinate me, as I wonder if they will be viable options to verify photo manipulation and fight misinformation. These efforts also bring us to a philosophical debate, why does it even matter?

What is truth? And further, why is truth worth the effort and investment?

We’ve lived through a massive era of the democratization of media creation and information access. All it takes is a smartphone and a Wi-Fi signal to create media, and these same tools make every photo, video, text and bit of information available to us in seconds. Want to know who took the photo of the first moon landing? In three seconds, we see it was Buzz Aldrin’s double-horizon shot of Neil Armstrong. Want to know what your friends are up to? Pop on to social media for real-time updates. Want to learn about climate change and get sucked into a conspiracy theory? We got that too. Are we living Star Trek or Black Mirror? Who knows right now, but we do know we can find it online.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin explores the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. (NASA)

With information everywhere, it becomes more important to check our sources and verify information, which is where tamper-proof verification tools come in handy. With these tools, as a reader, you can quickly verify that it was actually Neil Armstrong who took a picture of Buzz Aldrin (gotcha!) or that the conspiracy theory about climate change is manipulating you with doctored photos.

As truth becomes subjective and lies become acceptable, so long as the ends justify the means, the tools to verify become more crucial.

In his book Why We Did It, Tim Miller outlines how the former Republican political operative and his colleagues weaponized information and blurred truth to win political races by any means.

Tracing a path from the aftermath of Watergate, which inspired the likes of Roger Ailes to establish a news outlet to control the narrative, through the 1980s, when politics started to become flashier and more produced as spectacle, through to ‘alternative facts’ and our present-day demonizing of journalists, Miller walks us through how he and his peers produced a zero-sum game and made it culturally acceptable to lie to win.

Photos and video have a lot to say about our culture. A sweaty Richard Nixon may have lost the election to a camera-ready John F. Kennedy.

This shift also extends to the algorithms that decide what we see and hear, and today you can find your own version of the truth within echo chambers of like-minded people.

You may be thinking now, why are we talking about politics, and ‘I didn’t come here to get political.’ Well, dear reader, the political landscape has a lot to say about our culture, and it even extends into photography and video and how we use and consume images. Mannie Garcia’s AP photo of Obama became a rallying cry for Hope when artist Shepard Fairey adapted it. A sweety Richard Nixon may have lost the election to a camera-ready John F. Kennedy. Mr. Big passing out on a Peloton sent the company’s stock into a dip. Images have the power to shape our opinion on matters ranging from who you vote for or where you eat.

The power of images to shape our thinking is one I think of often. As a journalist, you can imagine why I would be invested in ensuring what we publish is accurate and ethical. Without your earned trust, built through years and years of accurate and verified reporting, journalism’s foundation starts to crumble.

Enter disinformation, ‘fake news,’ ‘alternative facts,’ deep fakes, the blurring of lines between opinion and news, and technology capable of quickly altering images, metadata, and more, and you can see why so many are invested in safeguarding the authenticity of visuals.

If you don’t know what truth is, then it’s easier to give you your version of the truth in order for the provider to lead you to the outcome they seek. ‘The ends justify the means.’


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