How Do You Catch a Photoshopped Fake?

Iran’s missile project may need more rocket scientists to help gets its projectiles off the ground, but its marketing team desperately needs some talented photo retouchers to better cover up its ballistic shortcomings. The duping of numerous newspapers by a digitally altered picture of Iran’s missile test is just the latest case of a Photoshopped picture being taken at face value. But while the sophistication of forgery detection software is way behind that of photo manipulation, with the help of government funding, it’s starting to catch up.

Hany Farid, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College, has developed software for faux photo detection, also known as digital forensics. His lab is funded by the Department of Justice and the FBI, which has already made use of it.

Indeed, with digital evidence being used more and more in the courtroom, both the prosecution and the defense want to be sure that exhibit A is really what it seems. “Any time you have digital evidence, either side can raise the specter of digital manipulation,” Farid said in a phone interview.

Farid’s detection software works by analyzing the patterns in photos. Unaltered photos have natural patterns in terms of lighting, contrast and scale. Altered photos will show unnatural patterns. “There’s no single technique,” Farid explained. “There’s a suite of tools, over a dozen. It’s not ‘Push a button and wait for something to happen.’ It’s very much an investigation looking for specific things.”

And Farid is now starting to see more interest from media circles about his software. He said he’s talked with the Associated Press, which deals with thousands of pictures of day, about using his software to check photos. Today’s Iranian missile photo gives the issue much more urgency. “It’s no longer just Star Magazine and the National Enquirer. Suddenly there are serious geopolitical issues involved.”