They’re doing it again! Internet censorship

24. April 2010

I wrote a rant about internet censorship infrastructure last year, and I probably should give you a follow-up on the subject. Mrs von der Leyen (Germany’s family minister) was unsuccessfull in creating an internet censorship infrastructure. Thank God. Well, actually, thank Democracy. There was an election later in the year, which lead to a new coalition of political parties in charge. Funnily enough, Mrs. von der Leyen still has the same job, but her plans to “fight internet child pornograpy” (read: implement a massive censorship infrastructure that’s not going to help fighting against child pornography at all) were put on a hold.

So… “Yay for democracy”, right?

Wrong.

Somebody figured: “if you cannot do that on a national level, lets do it on a european (EU) level instead”. And instead of having one country with censorship, lets make it mandatory for every country in the EU. The whole thing seems to be a great f**king hydra. Makes me wonder what would happen if somebody chopped off Mrs. von der Leyen’s head…

Anyways. This is where Cecilia Malmström, a swedish EU minister comes into the picture. She created the website www.cleanternet.org, and puts this funny video online:

Thanks Mrs. Malmström. It’s people like you that stop me from losing all hope in democracy.

I concluded my last post about the subject with “If you are searching for a country with intelligent politicians, look elsewhere. Ours certainly ain’t.” May be Sweden is.


Photoshopping – when pictures lie.

25. July 2009

I guess almost everyone has a digital camera these days, and we have all tried to enhance an image in some sort of image editing software. Now those who tried probably found out that editing images is difficult, and that for the most part it cannot be done with a few mouse clicks. From Adobe’s famous image editing software PhotoShop, this art has gotten the name “photoshopping”. If you know what you’re doing, you can substantially alter an image to your tastes. Done right, it can be an art in itself.

So, what’s wrong with photoshopping?

Lets just take an example, okay? Take this image that came through Reuters in 2006. What do you think it shows?

photoshopped-beirut

It shows Beirut on fire, right? And heavy black smoke, right?

Readers who know what a “clone brush” is, please look closely at the smoke in the upper left corner. Does that look “cloned” to you? It sure did to somebody.

Now as it turned out, that image wa really a photoshopped version of this image:

original-beirut

That is Beirut with one building on fire and some smoke.

Now, I’m totally not getting into why there was an israelian air strike in the first place, and what would be right or wrong with that. What I’m aiming at, is that we just cannot trust images anymore the way we used to. There have been numerous occasions where photoshopped images were released as “news”, this just happens to be a very prominent example.

This raises quite a few questions:

Q1. Why was the image altered in the first place?

I don’t know much about Adnan Hajj, the photographer, so I can only do guesswork on question 1. A lot of photographers get paid only if their photo gets published. So if you are a photographer, you want to get images that are exciting and news-worthy. The manipulated image sure looks more alarming than the original. With the level of competition on the news market, news agencies have outsourced more and more staff. People who only get their money if they sell a photo will be more likely to forge something to make a living than somebody who gets a regular salery no matter what.

On the other hand, Hajj is lebanese, and might have done that to shift public oppinion. But using the same kind of reasoning, the whole thing could also have been a setup to discredit anybody reporting on that side of the war.

Sorry, I cannot give you the real answer on what happened here, but it turns out not to be as important as you might think. Sure, Reuters could rely more on their own staff, but they cannot do so entirely. And there will always be somebody tampering with images just to get them sold or to make a point.

Q2. Did Reuters know the image was modified?

I’m not sure which answer I should hope for. Either they didn’t, which would be an unbelievable level of neglegance, or they did, which would be a level of bias only few people would expect from them either.

With only very few exceptions, it is possible to detect image manipulation. Even on a large scale. If they had any provisions to check for altered pictures, that would have caught Hajj’s image. Any experienced digital artist can easily see that it was photoshopped – if the Reuters staff didn’t, they’re blind or plain incompetent. There are ways to automatically detect such conduct, or at least raise a flag for further investigation. They could probably collect the RAW camera image files, which are a bit harder to manipulate, and check if the image had been altered.

On the other hand, what if they did know it was manipulated? Is Reuters biased, as some people think? Honestly, I don’t know, but if that were the case, they would be pretty stupid in releasing this particular photo. As said before, its rather easy to notice that the image is photoshopped, even with the low quality copy shown above. If they had wanted to manipulate public opinion, I personally find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t do a better job at it.

In the end, they were either sloppy at manipulating it, or they were sloppy checking for manipulation. That probably says more about how a news agency works than anything else.

(side note: if you don’t believe that this could have been automatically detected, here are two white papers on how it very well can be done: Image Manipulation Detection with Binary Similarity Measures [PDF],Image Manipulation Detection [PDF] )

Q3.  What does all that mean to us?

To us, it does not really matter why the image had been altered, since there will a number of reasons to do so, and there would always be reasons to do that.

It does shed a bad light on Reuters, and we have no reason to believe that Reuters is any different from other news agencies.

In the end, it should teach us that we cannot believe something to be true, just because we see a photo of it. Not that that would be all that new – there have been manipulations before digital imaging, and you never know how and why a picture came about. It could have been a set-up, an optical/analog manipulation or a digital one.

A picture sure can say more than a thousand words, but it can also tell more than a thousand lies.

Q4. So why am I blogging about the whole subject, anyways?

Its not new… been there, done that, got the t-shirt, now what?

Any new technology brings new opportunities and new pitfalls. This time its digital image manipulation and a stubling news agency. Next time it will be something else. What we really need is discussion on the technology’s implications.

We need to set moral standards on how a technology may be used, and where it should not.

After all, the pitfall doesn’t suddenly turn the technology into one from hell. It is always people who decide what they make of it – just think “nuclear fission” here. It can be used for nuclear bombs and in power plants. It is up to us to decide which uses we allow, and which we prohibit. Despite how tricky it can be to monitor its use we do need an open and public discussion on the use of technology.

There are a number of pretty new technologies that really do need such a discussion. Photoshopping is just one of them. I’d love to read your comments on this.


Why child porn filters are nonsense

16. May 2009

We are all against child pornography, right? So if a politician does something against child pornography, that is good, right? And there’s nothing you can say against that, right?

True, unless it is Ursula von der Leyen and her party trying to filter the web.

Now what exactly is wrong with that?

Before I get into that, lets see what she proposes to do: She wants to have a blacklist of pages that will be filtered by the internet access providers. If you try to go to one of the pages on that blacklist, you will get a red STOPP-sign (yes, with double P, and it has german text on it) instead. Technically this will be done by manipulating the DNS-servers of your internet access provider.

So far, so hoopy. If I accidentally click on such a link, I won’t be bothered to see the dirt. This is how far people (and our minister) think. And this is exactly the only positive thing that it will do: keeping people who do not want child porn away from it.

Now the alleged purpose is not to keep your grandma away from that dirt, so for those who wanted to get to child porn, how hard would it be to overcome that filter?

Surpassing that filter is trivial.

All you need to do is use a DNS-server that is not located in Germany. Since neither german legislation nor the blacklist apply there, it will let you get to the page. Changing your DNS server is a matter of 5 minutes, no computer expert needed. Once you changed that setting in your computer, the child pornography will be accessible to you just like nothing ever happened.

Okay. So the filter protects me and your grandma from seeing stuff, but not the consumers of child porn. Thats not a lot, but there still is some good in it, right?

No. Putting on sunglasses was never a solution to a real problem, and it sure ain’t this time around.

Here’s a list of problems caused by this:

Problem #1: The Blacklist

The blacklist has to remain secret, mainly because it is so easy to circumvent the filter. It is important for that blacklist not to be published. So the minister decided it would be best to keep courts out of the process, and that the law enforcement agencies manage it.

That means the jurisdiction is not involved. There is no judge banning a site, there is no way to find out if your site is on the list, and there is no way of filing a case to have your website to be removed from that list, if should it ever be included accidentally. And don’t think that hasn’t all happened yet! There was a dutch forwarding company on the norwegian blacklist and a dentist on the australian, neither one had anything to do with child pornography. Imagine your business site on that blacklist! BAD, mkay?

The examples of other countries (most recently: Australian Blacklist leak) shows, that such hardly ever is kept secret, and is the perfect users manual for pedophile. Since they are not affected by the filters, they can easily use that blacklist to get what they want: child porn. This was certainly not intended, but is the ultimate outcome. BAD, mkay?

Problem #2: Creating censorship infrastructure

Once the blacklist is in place, there will be a number of other interest groups who want stuff blocked from access. The communists want the nazi-stuff removed, the nazis want the communist stuff removed. Copyright holders want illegal copys made inaccessible, and on and on and on ….

Youre opening pandora’s box here. BAD, mkay?

Problem #3: Logging

I already explained how easy it is to surpass the filter, and that child porn consumers will not see the STOPP-sign, but there is the (albeit very slight)chance of YOU accidentally visiting such a page. Now the minister wants to log access to that STOPP-sign, and pass the data on for further investigation.

This means: Police will stand in front of your door with a search warrant, while the child porn consumer remains unmolested. BAD, mkay?

Problem #4: Distraction from the effective measures

To make things worse, somebody took one of the leaked blacklists from other countries and checked where the sites where hosted. 90% of those sites were hosted in Europe or North-America, but seemingly no effort had been made to shut those sites down. They just put it on the blacklist, and thats it. Trying to take the sites down or finding out who is behind it would actually help fighting child porn, but once its on the blacklist, why bother?

Now what again was that blacklist supposed to be doing? Ah, yer, fight child pornography. Cool. Totally cool. Lets put sunglasses on, so that we dont see it. Sure helps… NOT! Its BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD, DO YOU HEAR ME?

Conclusion

Child porn internet filters are complete nonsense. Whoever comes up with that is a complete moron, has no idea how the net works, and certainly doesn’t care to listen to the experts.

In short: Ursula von der Leyen, you are as thick as two short planks.

If you are searching for a country with intelligent politicians, look elsewhere. Ours certainly ain’t.

The Binary Grunt.