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Can you tell if a picture is fake?

Click to see full image.

Click to see full image.

Internet is already full of digital images and more is added every day. Digital pictures have become a cheap way for journalists to tell a story and ordinary people upload tons of them to social media. It’s quicker and easier to snap a shot and upload than to describe where you are and what the place looks like.

Photographs have always been seen as some kind of proof. Like a captured piece of reality. We are however aware of the fact that photographs can be manipulated. Digital image processing has revolutionized this area and brought amazing new techniques to us. But image manipulation has actually been a known technique since photography was invented. It is amazing to see what a skilled person can do to traditional images in the darkroom. Not to mention the fact that you can lie a lot just by taking the picture in a certain way.

This article is about our relationship to the digital images on the net. There’s a lot of manipulated pictures out there, but are you able to recognize a fake? And are you even alert and aware that the picture may not be the full truth? We are all confronted with many pictures a day that aren’t completely real. Objects may be added or removed, or heavy retouching has been used to make models look better. Here’s some concrete hints about how to tell the fakes from the real ones.

  • In what context is the picture presented? Image manipulation is the norm in some contexts, like product and fashion photography, and some kinds of artistic photo. News agencies and nature photographers on the other hand have strict ethical rules against manipulation. First think about if manipulation is to be expected and if it should be accepted. Does it matter if the photo isn’t real?
  • Is the image realistic overall? Some manipulated images are so surrealistic that you can dismiss them as unreal at once, even if they are very well done technically. Ask yourself; can this be real? See the illustration to this article for an example.
  • Do you have access to several shots from the same scene? Are there discrepancies between them?
  • Are light and shadows similar between objects in the picture? Pay attention to which side is lighter, how hard the light seem to be and how the objects cast shadows. Needless to say, objects close to each other get the same light in real life. If they are illuminated differently, they may originate from different photos. Also pay attention to the environment. From what direction is the light supposed to come?
  • Is the perspective right? Getting this right is always a challenge when combining objects from different pictures. Just look at the shot and trust your gut feeling. Pictures with minor perspective errors do often feel wrong even if you can’t tell what the problem is.
  • Does the objects’ edges look right? A lot of work may go into the edges when putting something in front of a new background. They often give away the fake if they are done sloppily or with lacking skills. Pay special attention to people’s hair as that is hard to mask.
  • Image manipulation often requires filling areas to replace removed objects. Patterns that repeat in an unnatural way is a sure sign of sloppy cloning. Cloning can also be used to multiply an object, but several identical object do rarely look exactly identical in a real photo due to differences in perspective and lighting. It’s fishy if they look identical in a picture.
  • Is the color consistent? Do different parts of a human’s body have the same skin color? An object’s apparent color depends very much of the illumination’s color temperature. Do the different objects have a consistent color cast?
  • All digital capture devices leave some kind of structure in the picture. Most notable is the noise produced by digital cameras. You can check that this structure is constant over the whole picture if you have access to a fairly hi-resolution image. It’s futile to try this on small images from on-line news sites.
  • Metadata is data hidden inside the image files. One important piece of data is the software used to save the file. A camera model name would indicate no manipulation at all. Workflow programs like Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture are typically used to do moderate adjustments of images, but no real manipulation. The image may be heavily manipulated if it is saved by Photoshop. But this does on the other hand prove nothing as you can do minor adjustments is Photoshop too. Also remember that this data may be lacking or even forged.
  • Even if a picture is totally genuine, it may be misleading if presented in the wrong context. Like someone using a picture of somebody else for a dating site profile. Here Google Image search comes in handy. Click on the camera to the right in the search field to open “Search by image”. Upload a copy of the image or paste in a link to it on the net. Google will search for images that look the same regardless of what context they are published in. This can often reveal that the image was found on the net rather than taken by someone who has posted it as his own.

That’s a quick list of things that help you spot the fakes. Using these hints require some training, but you will soon start seeing the manipulations if you keep them in mind when looking at images. But is it possible to make a perfect fake that is undetectable? Yes, especially if a skilled artist can work on a high resolution image and the result is scaled down to be published on the web. That down-sampling can hide the signs of manipulation effectively and make the fake practically undetectable for laymen. Scientific analysis methods are more capable, but they are not available to us mortals. And they may also fail to detect good fakes.

So the moral of the story is really that a photo shouldn’t be trusted too much unless its background is known and we know what ethical principles the photographer and publisher adhere to. News agencies typically pay attention to this and promise us authentic news pictures. These pictures are typically trustworthy, even if scandals do occur.

Safe surfing,Micke

PS. This funny video is one of my favorites on YouTube.

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What is a supercookie and why is it more important than you think?

Many techie terms in the headlines lately. Supercookies, supertrackers, HTTP headers and X-UIDH. If you just skim the news you will learn that this is some kind of new threat against our privacy. But what is it really? Let’s dig a bit deeper. We will discover that this is an issue of surprisingly big importance. Cookies are already familiar to most of us. These are small pieces of information that a web server can ask our browser to store. They are very useful for identifying users and managing sessions. They are designed with security and privacy in mind, and users can control how these cookies are used. In short, they are essential, they can be a privacy problem but we have tools to manage that threat. What’s said above is good for us ordinary folks, but not so good for advertisers. Users get more and more privacy-aware and execute their ability to opt out from too excessive tracking. The mobile device revolution has also changed the game. More and more of our Internet access is done through apps instead of the browser. This is like using a separate “browser” for all the services we use, and this makes it a lot harder to get an overall picture of our surfing habits. And that’s exactly what advertisers want, advertising is like a lottery with bad odds unless they know who’s watching the ad. A new generation of supercookies (* were developed to fight this trend. It is a piece of information that is inserted in your web traffic by your broadband provider. Its purpose is to identify the user from whom the traffic comes. And to generate revenue for the broadband provider by selling information about who you really are to the advertisers. These supercookies are typically used on mobile broadband connections where the subscription is personal, meaning that all traffic on it comes from a single person. So why are supercookies bad? They are inserted in the traffic without your consent and you have no way to opt out. They are not visible at all on your device so there is no way to control them by using browser settings or special tools. They are designed to support advertisers and generate revenue for the mobile broadband provider. Your need for privacy has not been a design goal. They are not domain-specific like ordinary cookies. They are broadcasted to any site you communicate with. They were designed to remain secret. They are hidden in an obscure part of the header information that very few web administrators need to touch. There are two ways to pay for Internet services, with money or by letting someone profile you for marketing purposes. This system combines both. You are utilized for marketing profit by someone you pay money to. But what can and should I do as an ordinary user? Despite the name, this kind of supercookies are technically totally different from ordinary cookies. The privacy challenges related with ordinary cookies are still there and need to be managed. Supercookies have not replaced them. Whatever you do to manage ordinary cookies, keep doing it. Supercookies are only used by some mobile broadband providers. Verizon and AT&T have been most in the headlines, but at least AT&T seems to be ramping down as a result of the bad press. Some other operators are affected as well. If you use a device with a mobile broadband connection, you can test if your provider inserts them. Go to this page while connected over the device’s own data connection, not WiFi. Check what comes after “Broadcast UID:”. This field should be empty. If not, then your broadband provider uses supercookies. Changing provider is one way to get rid of them. Another way is to use a VPN-service. This will encapsulate all your traffic in an encrypted connection, which is impossible to tamper with. We happen to have a great offering for you, F-secure Freedome. Needless to say, using Freedome on your mobile device is a good idea even if you are not affected by these supercookies. Check the site for more details. Last but not least. Even if you’re unaffected, as most of you probably are, this is a great reminder of how important net neutrality is. It means that any carrier that deliver your network traffic should do that only, and not manipulate it for their own profit. This kind of tampering is one evil trick, throttling to extort money from other businesses is another. We take neutrality and equal handling for granted on many other common resources in our society. The road network, the postal service, delivery of electricity, etc. Internet is already a backbone in society and will grow even more important in the future. Maintaining neutrality and fair rules in this network is of paramount importance for our future society.   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. The bad press has already made AT&T drop the supercookies, which is great. All others involved mobile broadband providers may have done the same by the time you are reading this. But this is still an excellent example of why net neutrality is important and need to be guaranteed by legislation.     (* This article uses the simplified term supercookie for the X-UIDH -based tracker values used by Verizon, AT&T and others in November 2014. Supercookie may in other contexts refer to other types of cookie-like objects. The common factor is that a supercookie is more persistent and harder to get rid of than an ordinary cookie.   Image by Jer Thorp  

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20 Patents in 14 Years: How An Award-Winning Inventor Finds His Groove

We wouldn't be F-Secure without the talented and passionate researchers in our Labs. And today we'd like you to meet one whose inquisitive nature has driven him to become an inventor - and a prolific one at that. In his 14-year career with F-Secure, Jarno Niemelä has racked up an impressive 20 patents to his name and has filed 100 patent applications in total. His achievements recently won the title of "Salaried Inventor of 2014" from a group of Finnish inventors' organizations. I sat down to chat with Jarno about where he gets his ideas, and his advice for others. What area do your inventions focus on? I mostly focus on methods to help detect malware on a system, or methods of preventing malware from entering the system in the first place. How do your ideas come about? Inventions mostly happen in the evening when I'm not at work, and not even trying to think about it. I'll be working on some problem at work, and usually a day or two later, when I'm doing something totally unrelated on my own time, it hits me. I understand the problem and come up with a solution. The gym is a really good place for inventions. What motivates you to keep on inventing new solutions?   Inventions just happen, pretty much. Whenever I'm able to define a problem, I'm usually always able to come up with a solution. I am lucky to be researching in areas with problems that others have not yet solved. I'll be honest, I don't really like patents that much personally. The fact is though, that companies without patents would pretty much be at the mercy of the competitors. So in my view, patents are basically company self defense. Patents keep things in balance. Were you curious about things growing up? I've always kind of been inventive. You cannot learn to become an inventor, it's either something that's in your nature or it's not. And then you need to hone the talent and learn how to work within the patent framework. Another thing that is very important is good basic education and knowledge about the field. I owe a lot to Metropolia University of Applied Sciences where I studied for my engineering degree. Do you have any advice for people who have this inventive nature and are interested in filing patents? It all starts from defining and understanding the problem. Without a thorough understanding of the problem, you can't come up with a solution. Also, when it comes to patents, it's important to know what has previously been done in your area, and be clear in exactly how your invention is different from those. Otherwise your patent can be easily rejected by the patent examiner. And finally, patents are a long process so you need patience. It can take three to five years to get a patent approved. So this is not for hasty people. What is that rock you're holding? It's my trophy, a piece of Finnish bedrock! Inventors are the bedrock of new products. Do you have any certain goals for your inventions? Before I retire I would like to have at least 50 patents to my name. - Well, he's off to a great start. Congratulations, Jarno! Follow Jarno on Twitter  

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