In the 1960s, the state of the art in recording was tape, the one- or two-inch-wide variety in professional studios and the new, compact cassette tapes for homes and cars. Famed chanteuse Ella Fitzgerald, one of the great vocalists of all time, did a famous commercial for Memorex, the tape manufacturer, touting its lifelike fidelity with the question, “Is it real, or is it Memorex?”
Now, it was actually a rhetorical question, or at the very least a question you were supposed to know the answer to by how it was asked. At any rate, it was all good fun, with Ella hitting a high note in various TV commercials and breaking drinking glasses, windows, mirrors and wine bottles. Sing it, Ella!
The march of progress
In the last 40 years, the advances made in both audio and video technologies have been truly astonishing. With digital recording, the answer to the Memorex question becomes, “It’s both,” and the same accuracy and high-resolution quality that we hear (and feel) in today’s music is evident in today’s images, too.
High-definition monitors make computer art, TV shows and digital video look more than lifelike, if one can imagine that. The amazing color and clarity is surpassed only by the incredible power of the new applications that have been developed to manage, modify and manipulate the images. Whether still photos, video or “digitized film,” the images we now see on our flat panels are the most realistic and compelling ever produced, anywhere, ever.
What is real?
The first inkling of what is now a most perplexing problem began with questions about certain photographs, videos and sound recordings in the 1960s. And, as usual, the action was on the fringes – Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, hauntings and other “mysteries and conundrums.” Still, faking films and sound recordings in the “analog era” of celluloid and recording tape was not for the faint of heart nor the inexperienced.
“Those were the days when hoaxes were really hard work,” says Brent Berna, a Silicon Valley-raised, self-described “lifelong audio/visual nerd” and computer programmer. “It took a long time to fake films and photos.” With the quick ascent of the personal computer, and the concentration of incredible amounts of processing power into sub-$1000 machines, this changed within a single generation.
“By the middle of the 1990s, I’d say,” Berna continues, “both Macs and PCs were capable of digitizing both still and motion picture images and doing some good work, if not real fast. Today?” Berna pauses to arch his eyebrows in a dramatic mime of, “Wow!”
Scammer’s dream machines
Today’s dual-core processors blaze away at over 3GHz, access greater and greater amounts of higher- and higher-speed RAM, and save files to hard disks 100 times the size of those in 2001 models. “The amount of touching up you can do to photos and movies now,” Berna states, “is incredible. I could just about put you in a full-motion scene with John Travolta if I had good enough raw material to work with. Just think of what they’re doing with special effects today and think about it.”
These powerful PCs have become the scammer’s dream machines, just as they have been pressed into service by a growing contingent of scientists, journalists, researchers and law enforcement personnel. However, these latter folks are extending the boundaries of the new subsets of forensic science, variously called computer and A/V (audio/visual) forensics.
“If you’re looking at video security tape of a crime scene,” states Berna, “you can’t simply assume anymore that what you’re seeing is what was originally recorded. Every photograph, every negative, every computer image – they all have to be checked out to see if they’re authentic.” Berna has identified a key issue with evidence gathering techniques in the digital era, an issue that is getting more complex all the time.
Issues of trust
Neither should everyone assume that evidence brought into court by the prosecution is free of suspicion. A number of medical examiners from around the country have been removed from office for submitting faulty and fraudulent autopsy reports, while evidence department supervisors and technicians in more than a dozen states have been charged with both negligence and other improprieties. Berna blames the TV show, CSI.
“Well, not just them,” he continues, “but all those shows that make you think that forensics is some sort of perfect, predictable, exact process. Fingerprints are matched by examiners, using judgment, not computers using scanners. It’s scary that people trust all this so much.” Berna goes on to point out that even eyewitness testimony has been shown to be very untrustworthy.
Defense lawyers are boning up on technology and forensic science, too, now that they understand the ways in which evidence can be altered, or even created, by strings of digital ones and zeroes, a few mouse clicks and some Photoshop effects. Video surveillance is a great tool for defense and security, but when the images can be altered with software that can be obtained on the Internet at no cost, it loses its evidentiary value. This can mean the difference between a just verdict and an injustice of major proportions.
There will always be cheaters, liars and scam artists. Those who are developing computer skills to falsify video and photo evidence will have to contend with others, just as smart and perhaps even more passionate about what they are doing, who are committed to using the same tools to establish what is true and what is false. The techniques may be new and still evolving, but they are undertaken in pursuit of an ancient and honored goal, namely, establishing the truth in order to achieve justice.