Send in the Clones

Earlier in the summer, Iran released this image to the international community — purportedly a photograph of rocket tests carried out recently.

Iran missiles (original image)

There was an interesting response from a number of people that pointed out that the images appeared to have been manipulated. Eventually, the image ended up on the blog Photoshop Disasters (PsD) who released this marked up image highlighting the fact that certain parts of the image seemed similar to each other. Identical in fact; they had been cut and pasted.

Iran missile image marked up by PsD

The blog joked that the photos revealed a “shocking gap in that nation’s ability to use the clone tool.”

The clone tool — sometimes called the “rubber stamp tool” — is a feature available in a number of photo-manipulation programs including Adobe Photoshop, GIMP and Corel Photopaint. The tool lets users easily replace part of a picture with information from another part. The Wikipedia article on the tool offers a good visual example and this description:

The applications of the cloning tool are almost unlimited. The most common usage, in professional editing, is to remove blemishes and uneven skin tones. With a click of a button you can remove a pimple, mole, or a scar. It is also used to remove other unwanted elements, such as telephone wires, an unwanted bird in the sky, and a variety of other things.

Of course, the clone tool can also be used to add things in — like the clouds of dust and smoke at the bottom of the images of the Iranian test. Used well, the clone tool can be invisible and leave little or no discernible mark. This invisible manipulation can be harmless or, as in the case of the Iranian missiles, it can used for deception.

The clone tool makes perfect copies. Too perfect. And these impossibly perfect reproductions can becoming revealing errors. Through its introduction of unnatural verisimilitude within an image, the clone introduces errors. In doing so, it can reveal both the person manipulating the image and their tools. Through their careless use of the tool, the Iranian government’s deception, and their methods, were revealed to the world.

But the Iranian government is hardly the only one caught manipulating images through careless use of the clone tool. Here’s an image, annotated by PsD again, of the 20th Century Fox Television logo with “evident clone tool abuse!”

20th Century Fox Image Manipulation

And here’s an image from Brazilian Playboy where an editor using a clone tool has become a little overzealous in their removal of blemishes.

Missing navel on Playboy Brazil model

Now we’re probably not shocked to find out that Playboy deceptively manipulates images of their models — although the resulting disregard for anatomy drives the extreme artificially of their productions home in a rather stark way.

In aggregate though, these images (a tiny sample of what I could find with a quick look) help speak to the extent of image manipulation in photographs that, by default, most of us tend to assume are unadulterated. Looking for the clone tool, and for other errors introduced by the process of image manipulation, we can get a hint of just how mediated the images we view the world are — and we have reason to be shocked.

Here’s a final example from Google maps that shows the clear marks of the clone tool in a patch of trees — obviously cloned to the trained eye — on what is supposed to be an unadulterated satellite image of land in the Netherlands.

Missing navel on Playboy Brazil model

Apparently, the surrounding area is full of similar artifacts. Someone has been edited out and papered over much of the area — by hand — with the clone tool because someone with power is trying to hide something visible on that satellite photograph. Perhaps they have a good reason for doing so. Military bases, for example, are often hidden in this way to avoid enemy or terrorist surveillance. But it’s only through the error revealed by sloppy use of the clone tool that we’re in any position to question the validity of these reasons or realize the images have been edited at all.

Writing Type

You have probably seen text produced by computers in fonts that are meant to look like they were typed on typewriters. The word “bookselling” caught my eye in a presentation by Lawrence Lessig. I’ve rendered a blown up version here in P22 Typewriter, the font he used in his presentation.

Bookselling in P22 Typewriter

Here is “bookselling” rendered in another typewriter font, Old Typewriter, which is a similiar, but more extreme, example.

Bookselling in Old Typewriter

I was struck by the fact that while the font looked messy, it was consistently messy. The back-to-back o’s and l’s in “bookselling” are perfect copies of each other. No typewriter would have produced identically messy letters. However, because they are produced using a computer, the distortion is perfectly consistent between instances of a given letter.

To appreciate the revealing error, you must understand that the process of printing with inked pieces of metal type is messy. In letterpress printing, ink is rolled onto type using rollers or inkballs. In typewriters, letters are inked individually or the ink is pressed onto the page through an ink soaked ribbon. The result in both cases is letterforms that are slightly deformed due to irregular application of ink to type, globbing of the ink, the rough texture of the paper, and the splattering of ink across the page when the type hits the page. In part to prevent confusion due to these errors, typewriter typefaces employ exaggerated serifs to make each letter’s form more distinct and resistant to distortion and noise.

However, on a computer screen or on a modern printer, letterforms are perfectly reproduced. Printers and screens build letters out of patterns of dots in tiny grids. The dots making up letters are precisely placed and microscopic. Screen don’t splatter ink. In order to present an accurate typewriter font on screen or to be printed by a modern printer, font designers must also represent the types of errors that typewriters would make. You can see the messiness clearly in typewriter font samples.

Pangrams in a typewriter font

However, just as the sloppiness of typewritten documents reveals the typewriters that produced it, the computer reproduction of that error introduces another revealing mistake. While most letterforms produced by a typewriter are malformed, they are uniquely malformed. Like snowflakes, each letter printed by a typewriter is subtly different for every other letter. The computer reveals itself by reproducing the same messiness of a letterform each time it is reproduced.

A typewriter might produce the first o; in fact, a real typewriter was probably the source of that letterform. But no typewriter would produce that o identically twice. That takes a computer. To be very convincing, a typewriter font would need to produce different versions of each character or to distort them randomly. I’ve been told that there are now fonts that do exactly this.

While the imperfections of the typewritten characters reveals a typewriter, the reproduction of these errors with perfect verisimilitude reveals a computer. In the process of trying to emulate the errors created by a typewriter, the computer commits a new error and reveals the whole process.

Technology-Assisted Deception

This error was revealed and written up by Aaron Swartz.

When I told a friend about this project, she (let’s call her Alice) told me a story.

Alice lives a major city with fairly good cell coverage, except for a long tunnel that goes underground. Alice often gets calls from her mom. Alice likes her mom, of course, no problems there, but, as we all do, finds long phone calls with her a bit trying. So often when she’s on the phone with her mom, Alice will say “Oops, sorry mom, got to go into the tunnel now!” Even when she’s not going into the tunnel.

This is a lie that new technology makes possible. But it only makes it possible because there are known failures in the technology. If we only had old landline phones, you’d never be able to claim such a thing — landline phones don’t randomly stop working. And if we had perfect cell coverage, it similarly wouldn’t make sense. But since the technology only half-works, the unfinished space can be used for very human forms of deception.