A picture worth a thousand lies

Neal Krawetz, a security researcher at Hacker Factor, knows a fake photo when he sees one. He also knows how it's done. Images: Pictures that lie

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but are they authentic?

In April of 2003, the Los Angeles Times ran a dramatic image of a British soldier urging Iraqi civilians to safety. The credited photographer, Brian Walski, was later fired for combining separate photos to create the image. It was a compelling shot, but it was also a lie.

Such trickery is not news to security researcher Neal Krawetz, founder of Hacker Factor. At last year's Black Hat conference, Krawetz presented his research into exposing malicious-software writers through their keyword use and word choices.

Krawetz is interested in the ways our use of technology reveals us, even when we think we're being anonymous. This year, Krawetz is turning his attention toward revealing the secrets buried within images. For example, Krawetz recently attempted to determine--based on the images alone--who might have leaked the contents of the final Harry Potter book onto the Internet.

It's one thing to have the tool; it's another thing to have the talent to actually use it right.

On Wednesday, Krawetz will be among the first presenters at this year's Black Hat conference, where he plans to further discuss the various ways images can be manipulated. CNET News.com spoke with Krawetz a few days before his Black Hat presentation.

Are these fraudulent images mostly on the Internet?
Krawetz: Some images are on the Internet, some have made the newspaper. There was a graphic picture rendered of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. It won an award from the Computer Graphics Society. (In my talk) I actually dissect the image and show how it was likely made. This picture--to the human eye--is photo-realistic. It's made the cover of magazines.

Does photo-realistic image manipulation require special hardware? Or can one use off-the-shelf software?
Krawetz: Buzz Aldrin was created using (Autodesk's) 3ds Max and Combustion, and (Adobe Systems') Photoshop, which are all off-the-shelf software programs. But it's one thing to have the tool; it's another thing to have the talent to actually use it right. Anyone can use a ray tracer, but that doesn't mean you can create something that is photo-realistic.

Unfortunately, most people out there are not experts. And if you're not a graphics expert, and you had to paste Hillary Clinton's head on some body, it stands out where the head has been cut out.

You may not be able to track a tool to a person, but you can track a tool to a skill set. Tools definitely leave fingerprints.

Speaking of Sen. Clinton, the 2008 presidential elections are gearing up. Are we likely to see photo-realistic images in the upcoming campaign?
Krawetz: Likely is an understatement. I think we've already seen some. Take USA Today. Every now and again, they put up pictures of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And they will modify the pictures.

(Editors' note: CNET News.com failed to contact USA Today for a response to this allegation prior to the publication of this interview. Reached after publication, a representative said, "Any suggestion that USA Today intentionally manipulates photos or other images in a manner intended to distort the news is defamatory and without any basis in fact.")

I'm not sure who's modifying the pictures--whether it's the photographer submitting it or the intern who's putting them together or someone else at USA Today--but they'll modify it to increase the brightness, for example, on Hillary.

When you increase brightness on a picture, you bring out all the things like wrinkles that really aren't attractive. And they'll soften the picture on Barack Obama to make it look better. Editorially, this can be taken too far. You saw that in the case of O.J. Simpson, (whose mug shot looked very different on the ).

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