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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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In what color would you like your new Mercedes?

A new Mercedes. Nice. Or maybe an Audi R8? That would be cool. But hold it! Don’t sell your old car yet! Liking and sharing that giveaway campaign on Facebook will NOT give you a new car. Those prizes doesn’t even exist. They are just hoaxes. Internet and Facebook is full of crap, junk, rubbish, nonsense and gibberish. Nobody knows how many chain letters there are spreading some kind of unbelievable story. False celebrity news, bogus first-aid advice, phony charity campaigns and this kind of giveaways. We tend to think about these chain letters as hoaxes, pretty harmless jokes that doesn’t hurt us. But that’s not the full story. A hoax can be harmful, like the outright dangerous first aid advice that some people keep spreading. But a car giveaway is probably a harmless and safe prank, even if it’s false? No, not really. These chain letters are actually not traditional hoaxes, they are like-farming scams. There’s no free lunch, you don’t pay for Facebook with money but with your private data. The like-farming scams work in the same currency. You will not lose any money even if you like the page and share it. Instead you will participate in building a page with a lot of supporters, which is valuable and can be sold later. Needless to say, you will not get any of that money. Here’s how it works. Any business has a problem when starting on Facebook. An empty page without likes isn’t trustworthy. So the scammers set up a page containing anything that can go viral. A promise to get a luxury car works well. They just have to tell everyone to like the page and to share it as much as possible, to keep the chain reaction going and get even more likes. The scammers wait until there’s enough likes before they clean out the content, rename it and start looking for a buyer. The price is in “$ per k”, meaning dollars per 1000 likes. A page with 100 000 likes could sell for over $1000. So sharing the page can make quite a lot of money for the scammers if you have a lot of gullible friends, who in turn have a lot of gullible friends, and so on … The downside for you is that the likes stick even if the page is redesigned for some totally different purpose. Your face will be an evangelist for the page’s new owners and show up next to their brand. And you have no idea about what you will be promoting. I have friends who are anti-fur activists. You can probably imagine what one of them would feel when discovering that she likes a fur-coat designer! And finally some concrete advice. Review your list of old likes regularly. Remove everything except those things you truly like and want to support. When you encounter a giveaway post like this, check the involved brand’s main page in Facebook by searching for the brand name. You will in most cases notice that the giveaway is a totally different page that just is named similarly. That’s a strong scam indicator. Use common sense. From the above you get an idea about what likes in Facebook are worth. Does it make sense to give away luxury cars for this? Don’t participate in scams like this. It might feel tempting, but remember that your chance to win is exactly zero. Spread knowledge every time you see a scam of this kind. Comment with a link to this post or the appropriate description on Hoax-Slayer or Snopes.   Those sites are by the way fun and educating reading. I recommend spending some time there getting familiar with other types of hoaxes too. Read at least these two articles: Facebook car giveaway on Snopes and Facebook like-farming scams on Hoax-Slayer .   Safe surfing, Micke  

Dec 16, 2014
crime scene

Help! I lost my wallet, phone and everything! I need 1000 €!

“Sorry for the inconvenience, I'm in Limassol, Cyprus. I am here for a week and I just lost my bag containing all my important items, phone and money at the bus station. I need some help from you. Thanks” Many of you have seen these messages and some of you already know what the name of the game is. Yes, it’s another type of Internet scam, an imposter scam variant. I got this message last week from a photo club acquaintance. Or to be precise, the message was in bad Swedish from Google translate. Here’s what happened. First I got the mail. Needless to say, I never suspected that he was in trouble in Limassol. Instead I called him to check if he was aware of the scam. He was, I wasn’t the first to react. Several others had contacted him before me and some were posting warnings to his friends on Facebook. These scams start by someone breaking in to the victim’s web mail, which was Gmail in this case. This can happen because of a bad password, a phishing attack, malware in the computer or a breach in some other system. Then the scammer checks the settings and correspondence to find out what language the victim is using. The next step is to send a message like the above to all the victim’s contacts. The victim had reacted correctly and changed the Gmail password ASAP. But I wanted to verify and replied to the scam mail anyway, asking what I can do to help. One hour later I got this: “Thanks, I need to borrow about 1000 euros, will pay you back as soon as I get home. Western Union Money Transfer is the fastest option to wire funds to me. All you need to do is find the nearest Western Union shop and the money will be sent in minutes. See details needed WU transfer below. Name: (Redacted) Address: Limassol, Cyprus you must email me the reference number provided on the payment slip as soon as you make the transfer so I can receive money here. Thank you,” Now it should be obvious for everyone how this kind of scam works. Once the scammers get the reference number they just go to Western Union to cash in. Most recipients will not fall for this, but the scammers will get a nice profit if even one or two contacts send money. But wait. To pull this off, the scammers need to retain control over the mail account. They need to send the second mail and receive the reference number. How can this work if the victim had changed his password? This works by utilizing human’s inability to notice tiny details. The scammers will register a new mail account with an address that is almost identical to the victim’s. The first mail comes from the victim’s account, but directs replies to the new account. So the conversation can continue with the new account that people believe belongs to the victim. The new address may have a misspelled name or use a different separator between the first and last names. Or be in a different domain that is almost the same as the real one. The two addresses are totally different for computers, but a human need to pay close attention to notice the difference. How many of you would notice if a mail address changes from say Bill.Gates@gmail.com to BiII_Gates@mail.com? (How many differences do you notice, right answer at the end?) To be honest, I was sloppy too in this case and didn’t at first see the tiny difference. In theory it is also possible that webmail servers may leave active sessions open and let the scammers keep using the hacked account for a while after the password has been changed. I just tested this on Gmail. They close old sessions automatically pretty quickly, but it is anyway a good idea to use the security settings and manually terminate any connection the scammers may have open. I exchanged a couple of mails with this person the day after. He told that the scammers had changed the webmail user interface to Arabic, which probably is a hint about where they are from. I was just about to press send when I remembered to check the mail address. Bummer, the scammer’s address was still there so my reply would not have reached him unless I had typed the address manually. The account’s reply-to was still set to the scammer’s fake account. OK, let’s collect a checklist that helps identifying these scams. If someone asks for urgent help by mail, assume it’s a scam. These scams are a far more common than real requests for help. We are of course all ready to help friends, but are YOU really the one that the victim would contact in this situation? Are you close enough? How likely is it that you are close enough, but still had no clue he was travelling in Cyprus? Creating urgency is a very basic tool for scammers. Something must be done NOW so that people haven't got time to think or talk to others. The scammers may or may not be able to write correct English, but other languages are most likely hilarious Google-translations. Bad grammar is a strong warning sign. Requesting money using Western Union is another red flag. Wire transfer of money provides pretty much zero security for the sender, and scammers like that. Many scammers in this category try to fake an embarrassing situation and ask the recipient to not tell anyone else, to reduce the risk that someone else sees through it. These messages often state that the phone is lost to prevent the recipient from calling to check. But that is exactly what you should do anyway. Next checklist, how to deal with a situation where your account has been hijacked and used for scams. Act promptly. Change the mail account’s passwords. Check the webmail settings and especially the reply-to address. Correct any changed settings. Check for a function in the web mail that terminates open sessions from other devices. Gmail has a “Secure your account” -wizard under the account’s security settings. It’s a good idea to go through it. Inform your friends. A fast Facebook update may reach them before they see the scammer’s mail and prevent someone from falling for it. It also helps raising awareness. And finally, how to not be a victim in the first place. This is really about account security basics. Make sure you use a decent password. It’s easier to maintain good password habits with a password manager. Activate two-factor authentication on your important accounts. I think anyone’s main mail account is important enough for it. Learn to recognize phishing scams as they are a very common way to break into accounts. Maintain proper malware protection on all your devices. Spyware is a common way to steal account passwords. The last checklist is primarily about protecting your account. But that’s not the full picture. Imagine one of your friends falls for the scam and loses 1000 € when your account is hacked. It is kind of nice that someone cares that much about you, but losing money for it is not nice. Yes, the criminal scammer is naturally the primarily responsible. And yes, people who fall for the scam can to some extent blame themselves. But the one with the hacked account carries a piece of responsibility too. He or she could have avoided the whole incident with the tools described above. Caring about your account security is caring about your friends too! And last but not least. Knowledge is as usual the strongest weapon against scams. They work only as long as there are people who don’t recognize the scam pattern. Help fighting scam by spreading the word!   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. The two mail addresses above have 3 significant differences. 1. The name separator has changed from a dot to an underscore. 2. The domain name is mail.com instead of gmail.com. 3. The two lower case Ls in Bill has been replaced with capital I. Each of these changes is enough to make it a totally separate mail address.   Image by Yumi Kimura

Dec 8, 2014