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Counterfeiting for fun and profit

Tupac Shakur's still lively career holds lessons in the growing field of counterfeit reality, says CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
Since he died in 1996, Tupac Shakur has become a cottage industry.

The musician sold $7 million worth of records in 2003 and has released several posthumous albums, Gartner analyst Frank Kenney said. Through remixing, his latest songs contain references to the recent Iraq war. His face has also been superimposed on actors in recent videos, so it seems like he's just been filmed.

Although some people believe Tupac might still be alive, Kenney sees the phenomenon as part of the spread of counterfeit reality.

Counterfeit reality is essentially virtual reality with fraud thrown in. After all, no one who ever donned the virtual reality glove actually believed they were wielding a battle-ax.

Conspiracy theories are sort of a national pastime. The Stamp Act riots, the grassy knoll, Roswell, black helicopters: You just don't get skullduggery like this in Holland. Most theories, of course, fail the sniff test. If Jim Morrison had faked his death, as some claim, he wouldn't

Fake documents and images will begin to creep into court cases.
now secretly be undermining the status quo. He'd be collecting Social Security and dating Shelley Winters.

Counterfeit reality is a particularly insidious variant because advances in processing power and software like Photoshop, combined with the speed of Internet publishing, make it easy for anyone to concoct a Trilateral Commission-quality plot or debunk one. Pictures are also tough to dispel.

"Psychologists say we internalize things much more readily when we see them or hear them rather than when we read them," said Daryl Plummer, another Gartner analyst.

It's rapidly gaining popularity too. Back in 2001, a number of news organizations ran photos allegedly developed from film in a disposable camera found in the rubble of the World Trade Center disaster. One of the photos seemed to show a tourist on the observation deck with a plane in the background about to slam into the building.

There were only three problems: The plane was coming from the wrong direction, it was the wrong kind of plane, and the sun was setting instead of sitting high in the morning sky. Nonetheless, many people believed the photo, and news outlets published it.

In politics, a fake photo of John Kerry and Jane Fonda at an antiwar rally purportedly from the early 1970s helped temporarily change the

tenor of the presidential campaign. Similarly, President Bush took a hit in 2002 when a photo of him holding a book upside down during a visit to the George Sanchez Charter School reinforced his reputation with some as a dunce, until the photo was proved a fake.

On average, a person will get photographed 10 times in a five-block walk in a major city center.

Plummer and Kenney, however, warn that this is just the start. Fake documents and images will begin to creep into court cases. Entire fake personal histories could emerge. On average, a person will get photographed 10 times in a five-block walk in a major city center, Plummer pointed out. Altering the data could put you where you weren't.

"We have no mechanism to do authentication of images, to tell us it has not changed," Plummer said. "There will be manipulation where you can't tell what happened."

Identity theft--which claimed 9.4 million victims in the U.S. last year--will only spread. Legal protection and enforcement on all of these issues remains hazy. Terrorists could even employ counterfeiting techniques to simulate a beheading and achieve the same result without the hassle of getting a hostage.

The bright side, of course, is that there's money to be made out of this. Gartner call this a "magic quadrant" opportunity: a $10 billion a year business by 2015, according to Kenney's estimates. Research institutes are beginning to calve off companies, such as Imaging Forensics, that specialize in authentication. Other scientists will use these techniques to filter through clues and red herrings at murder sites.

The technology and concepts are also likely to find their way into the entertainment field. In the future, amusement parks may offer to create a virtual baby for customers, Plummer said. Attendants will take a saliva swab of two adults, feed the genetic data into a computer, and then spit out a 3D image of what a child from the couple might look like. The special effects machine in Hollywood will gobble up any advances in counterfeiting.

Still, kinks will need to be worked out. Artificial intelligence--one of the principal technologies for creating simulated reality--remains an evolving art. In the final episode of the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, soldiers march among the elephant-looking beasts. In the first run-through, the soldiers contained an artificial intelligence algorithm for self-preservation.

"When they released the elephants, the soldiers ran away," Plummer said.