Facts are scarified

The recent doctored Palace photo has done almost as much as the arrival of generative AI to raise fears that in future we will completely lose the ability to identify fakes. The royal photo was sloppily composited – no AI needed – for reasons unknown (though Private Eye has a suggestion). A lot of conspiracy theorizing could be avoided if the palace would release the untouched original(s), but as things are, the photograph is a perfect example of how to provide the fuel for spreading nonsense to 400 million people.

The most interesting thing about the incident was discovering the rules media apply to retouching photos. AP specified, for example, that it does not use altered or digitally manipulated images. It allows cropping and minor adjustments to color and tone where necessary, but bans more substantial changes, even retouching to remove red eye. As Holly Hunter’s character says, trying to uphold standards in the 1987 movie Broadcast News (written by James Brooks), “We are not here to stage the news.”

The desire to make a family photo as appealing as possible is understandable; the motives behind spraying the world with misinformation are less clear and more varied. I’ve long argued here that for this reason combating misinformation and disinformation is similar to cybersecurity because of the complexity of the problem and the diversity of actors and agendas. At last year’s Disinformation Summit in Cambridge cybersecurity was, sadly, one of the missing communities.

Just a couple of weeks ago the BBC announced its adoption of C2PA for authenticating images, developed by a group of technology and media companies including the BBC, the New York Times, Microsoft, and Adobe. The BBC says that many media organizations are beginning to adopt C2PA, and even Meta is considering it. Edits must be signed, and create a chain of provenance all the way back to the original photo. In 2022, the BBC and the Royal Society co-hosted a workshop on digital provenance, following a Royal Society report, at which C2PA featured prominently.

That’s potentially a valuable approach for publishing and broadcast, where the conduit to the public is controlled by one of a relatively small number of organizations. And you can see why those organizations would want it: they need, and in many cases are struggling to retain, public trust. It is, however, too complex a process for the hundreds of millions of people with smartphone cameras posting images to social media, and unworkable for citizen journalists capturing newsworthy events in real time. Ancillary issue: sophisticated phone cameras try so hard to normalize the shots we take that they falsify the image at source. In 2020, Californians attempting to capture the orange color of their smoke-filled sky were defeated by autocorrection that turned it grey. So, many images are *originally* false.

In lengthy blog posting, Neal Krawitz analyzes difficulties with C2PA. He lists security flaws, but also is opposed to the “appeal to authority” approach, which he dubs a “logical fallacy”. In the context of the Internet, it’s worse than that; we already know what happens when a tiny handful of commercial companies (in this case, chiefly Adobe) become the gatekeeper for billions of people.

All of this was why I was glad to hear about work in progress at a workshop last week, led by Mansoor Ahmed-Rengers, a PhD candidate studying system security: Human-Oriented Proof Standard (HOPrS). The basic idea is to build an “Internet-wide, decentralised, creator-centric and scalable standard that allows creators to prove the veracity of their content and allows viewers to verify this with a simple ‘tick’.” Co-sponsoring the workshop was Open Origins, a project to distinguish between synthetic and human-created content.

It’s no accident that HOPrS’ mission statement echoes the ethos of the original Internet; as security researcher Jon Crowcroft explains, it’s part of long-running work on redecentralization. Among HOPrS’ goals, Ahmed-Rengers listed: minimal centralization; the ability for anyone to prove their content; Internet-wide scalability; open decision making; minimal disruption to workflow; and easy interpretability of proof/provenance. The project isn’t trying to cover all bases – that’s impossible. Given the variety of motivations for fakery, there will have to be a large ecosystem of approaches. Rather, HOPrS is focusing specifically on the threat model of an adversary determined to sow disinformation, giving journalists and citizens the tools they need to understand what they’re seeing.

Fakes are as old as humanity. In a brief digression, we were reminded that the early days of photography were full of fakery: the Cottingley Fairies, the Loch Ness monster, many dozens of spirit photographs. The Cottingley Fairies, cardboard cutouts photographed by Elsie Wright, 16, and Florence Griffiths, 9, were accepted as genuine by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famously a believer in spiritualism. To today’s eyes, trained on millions of photographs, they instantly read as fake. Or take Ireland’s Knock apparitions, flat, unmoving, and, philosophy professor David Berman explained in 1979, magic lantern projections. Our generation, who’ve grown up with movies and TV, would I think have instantly recognized that as fake, too. Which I believe tells us something: yes, we need tools, but we ourselves will get better at detecting fakery, as unlikely as it seems right now. The speed with which the royal photo was dissected showed how much we’ve learned just since generative AI became available.

Illustrations: The first of the Cottingley Fairies photographs (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.