Week in review: Seeing is deceiving

A doctored photo of new CBS anchor Katie Couric calls attention to the tricks that digital images can play.

Steven Musil
Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
5 min read
We all know that technology is making strides in improving our daily lives, but did you also know it can help you shed unwanted pounds from your waistline in seconds without breaking a sweat?

That's what CBS did with an image of Katie Couric, which was originally released in May and then slimmed down for reuse. The doctored photo appears in the September issue of Watch magazine, according to Mediabistro, which first reported on the alteration. The New York Post and several blogs soon followed with coverage.

You too can look thinner, taller or tanner. Today's cameras will let you do more than adjust the flash; they'll let you adjust reality. Photo-adjusting features that once required a PC and special know-how are now allowing consumers to alter a photo as soon as it's snapped.

Most digital cameras to date have had tools that remove red-eye from photos or lighten darkened images because of a poor flash. But that editing corrects a deficiency in the photographer's skills, or the camera itself, not the subject.

With new tools, average people can create their own "pictures that lie" at the moment of capture, without any trace of the real image that was seen with the naked eye.

"People in the legal world are now concerned about whether photos can be accepted as evidence anymore, especially when you can alter the scene as you click the shutter," said Peter Southwick, associate professor and director of the photojournalism program at Boston University.

Photograph alteration has a long, seedy history. Digital technology, however, is taking the art to new levels. Here are some recent examples.

Many CNET News.com readers were surprised that some people still look to photos as unimpeachable fact.

"The fakes we should care about are the photojournalists, which we've heard of altering photos for dramatic effect," wrote one reader to the News.com TalkBack forum.

Photographers aren't the only people looking to improve their artwork. Budding YouTube directors are clamoring for tools that can help polish and add a touch of Hollywood to their homemade videos. They're demanding ease of use, low prices and visual effects that wow audiences.

Most of the material found at Revver, Metacafe and YouTube typically doesn't include much in the way of production values. It's usually just some guy with a camera recording his dog, baby or girlfriend. But the numbers of people trying to infuse their work with a unique look and craftsmanship are growing.

Fixing a hole
Fake Windows security patches and rogue iPod invoices have been making the rounds this week as spammers continue trying to fool people into installing Trojans on their PCs. Internet threat-monitoring firm Websense issued an advisory about a fake e-mail that encourages recipients to install a patch to fix a Windows vulnerability described in Microsoft security bulletin MS05-039.

According to Websense representative Joel Camissar, the e-mail is likely to have some success because it exploits users' fears that their systems may be vulnerable. The scam is a technical improvement on early attempts to trick users into installing Trojans because it rides on the back of an actual vulnerability that was patched by Microsoft earlier this month.

Meanwhile, more people had personal information revealed online. AT&T reported that hackers broke into one of its computer systems and accessed the personal data of about 19,000 customers who used its online store. The information that was illegally accessed included credit card numbers. The cyberattack affects customers who purchased equipment for high-speed DSL Internet connections through AT&T's Web site.

In another incident, Verizon Wireless accidentally distributed outside the company a file with limited details on more than 5,000 customers, potentially giving identity thieves a toehold. The Microsoft Excel spreadsheet file was e-mailed on Monday and includes names, e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers and cell phone models of 5,210 Verizon Wireless customers. A copy of the file was obtained by CNET News.com.

The spreadsheet was inadvertently sent to about 1,800 people, all Verizon Wireless subscribers, according to a follow-up e-mail apologizing for the gaffe that the mobile carrier sent Thursday. The Excel file was attached to an ad for a Bluetooth wireless headset, instead of the electronic order form that was supposed to be sent.

The incidents are the latest in a long string of data security breaches. Since early last year, more than 90 million personal records have been exposed in dozens of incidents, according to information compiled by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

On the line
A budget airline plans to allow passengers mobile access to voice and text communications on all of its flights. The airline expects to launch the service in mid-2007. Ryanair will partner with OnAir, an Airbus and Sita joint in-flight communications venture, which plans to fit the entire Ryanair fleet with technology called Mobile OnAir.

Passengers will be charged to make and receive voice calls and SMS messages via satellite broadband links, and they will also be charged to use push e-mail services such as those that work with BlackBerry handhelds. The connection between the plane and ground is carried by satellite operator Inmarsat.

Skype is cutting the cord as well, announcing new cordless phones that will let users make Internet phone service calls without a computer or Wi-Fi connection. The new Phillips VoIP841 and Netgear cordless phones plug into a broadband connection and come preloaded with Skype software, allowing users to make and receive phone calls without requiring them to have a computer turned on.

Skype, which is owned by eBay, is essentially a software application that turns broadband connections into phone lines. Users have traditionally downloaded the Skype software onto laptops and PCs, then used headsets and microphones to make calls from their computers over the Internet.

And for those who feel they need to put a leash on their phone, a new service called Mobile Manager, from Synchronica, can remotely make a Windows Mobile-based handset emit an "annoying and embarrassing high-pitched wail," so it can be found after it has been stolen or misplaced.

Thousands of mobile phones are stolen every month, according to Synchronica. If these are smart phones, they can contain sensitive information such as e-mail messages, computer files and other data.

Synchronica's mobile-phone management product can remotely lock and wipe data from Windows-based phones as soon as their owners report the loss. Companies can also turn on the "Synchronica Scream" feature.

Also of note
After hearing complaints from customers, Verizon Communications has dropped plans to impose a supplier surcharge on its DSL service...Smart phones and PDAs offer the benefit of storing information, but consumers may not wipe the data clean before selling the devices on eBay, according to research results...DirecTV is set to test an Internet phone service through its joint venture with Hicks Holdings as it tries to head off competition from cable operators using bundled services to attract and retain customers...RadioShack used e-mail to notify about 400 employees at its Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters that they no longer work for the company.