Photoshop experts wanted: Beijing scrambles to protect officials from doctored-image scandals

'Official' images that are more fiction than fact prompt Beijing to seek a computerised judge

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 11:11am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 November, 2013, 7:37am

As more and more officials are blackmailed using faked digital photographs, the government is asking scientists for help.

Research teams at major universities have received funding from the central government to come up with ways to help the authorities quickly determine whether an image has been manipulated by photo-editing software such as Photoshop.

In China, sending a government official a batch of sexually-scandalous photos for extortion has become a thriving business. Sometimes the pictures are real, but in most  cases the official’s head has been superimposed on to a body that does not belong to him.

Nevertheless, many have paid up fearing that if the photos are circulated they would prompt an investigation .

For Beijing, there is also another worry. Local propaganda officials frequently use Photoshop to improve photos of government leaders.

Sharp-eyed internet users have discovered many of these fake photos on government websites, such as a party secretary inspecting work while seemingly floating in the air, undermining authorities’ already shaky credibility.

Scientists have therefore been asked to come up with technical solutions to sniff out fake photos on government websites so they can be removed before they become a public embarrassment.

Different research teams are developing different  technologies, but they say they have been slightly overwhelmed by the challenges of the mission, which range from the increasing complexity of the technology to the enormous quantity of questionable photos needing to be processed.

Professor Li Xuewei, digital imaging expert with Tianjin University, said her team was working specifically on the doctoring of pictures of people. The project began in 2011 with funding from the central government.

"We look into the relationship between pixels. If you merge two people into one, you will inevitably change the natural relationship between pixels at joining areas and leave some traces that can be detected by computers," she said.

"That is the theory, though. In practice it is much more sophisticated."

In some areas on the mainland, blackmailing government officials with fake photos has proved highly lucrative.

Wu Dehua, party secretary of Shuangfeng county in Hunan told Southern Weekly the situation had got worse after more than 20 senior officials and state-owned company executives in Chongqing were sacked over a sex tape scandal last year.

"Some people blackmailed important leaders, even central government leaders," he was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

"Some criminals even blackmailed the Minister of Public Security."

It was a quick way to wealth as many officials sent money to the blackmailer’s bank account, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of yuan. In provinces such as Heilongjiang and Jiangxi, hundreds of officials sent millions of yuan, while less than 10 per cent of those blackmailed reported the matter to the police, according to local media.

Some scientists have been asked by the government to develop "blind testing" methods that can automatically test a large batch of photos without human interference.

A researcher at Beijing Jiaotong University said it would be difficult to come up with one test to catch all forms of photographic fakery.

"A well manipulated image might have used several methods and a blind test would require us to go through it with one method after another. It could be quite time consuming," he said, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the research.

"Many photos on the internet have also been compressed, leaving too few pixels for precise analysis. To validate each new method we also need to build up a large and comprehensive photo database as a source for reference. This is also very labour intensive and very costly to build."

Many other universities on the mainland are involved in similar projects to deal with different issues concerning fake images, including Shanghai Jiaotong University, Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Hefei University of Technology in Anhui and Nankai University in Tianjin.

Professor Niu Shaozhang, image processing expert with Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, said his research targeted news photos generated by government propaganda departments.

"Fake photos such as ‘floating officials’ are relatively easy to detect because they have destroyed the correlation between pixels. Our main job is to give an objective judgment on photos, such as whether an official had been enlarged, whether the point of focus had been reallocated," he said.

Niu’s team was building up a reference database of news photos generated by state news agencies such as Xinhua and expected the technology would give a good guide as to an official photo’s authenticity.

But he warned that computer analysis could be slow and ineffective in some circumstances.

"The eyes of internet users are often more effective than the best technology," he said.

A former photographer with Xinhua news agency said the use of photo-editing software was very popular in   government propaganda departments.

"Nearly all photos of senior government officials had been digitally retouched," he said.