The photo released by the White House depicting President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden along with members of the national security team during a briefing on the mission to capture or kill terrorist Osama Bin Laden is rapidly rocketing up to becoming the most-viewed photo on Flickr of all time:
The photo is fascinating for capturing what must’ve been breathless moments when the President, the military and our covert operations organizations wondered if the long search for Osama would at last prove successful.
But, what immediately caught my eye were the documents cast casually before Clinton in the photo — what were they of, and could they be revealing more than the government intended in a picture released to the public? At a glance, I expected they were satellite and/or aerial photos of the compound that Osama had built for himself to hide in. The caption paragraph of the photo page on Flickr apparently even refers directly to it, saying, “Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured.” That really draws attention to it! It must be something interesting/cool, if it must be hidden!
I clicked on the magnifying-glass button in Flickr, to view that section of the photo with larger resolution. When viewing the original size, you can see that, indeed, the top document has been pixelated out:
As a side note, isn’t it interesting that there are special White House coffee cups, apparently, with the presidential seal on them? Apparently they don’t do Starbucks at the White House.
I still wonder, though, did they obscure it enough? It’s not unusual for the government to redact sensitive words or other information out of documents, but in this high-tech world it’s moderately risky to allow out photos, even when you try to blur out sensitive information. As I’ve proved before, blurring and pixelation can sometimes be reversed. The type of blurring or bitmapping done to the White House Situation Room photo is pretty lossy — the person who did it would no doubt believe it could not be reversed, since so much information from that area of the photo has been discarded in the process.
Yet, in that part of the picture alone, one could apply image algorithms which would attempt to reverse out the blurring by trying to enhance the elements of the picture that are left. This requires a form of interpolation to rebuild/replace the many pixels in between the blocks of color which resulted from an averaging of the original pixels. For each large block of continuous color, there were originally many pixels in their place which got combined/averaged into a median color. From the lighting in the photo, the color of each pixel, and the context of colors around each, an algorithm could attempt to interpolate and rebuild the picture. Interpolation is a form of mathematical guesswork, so there’s a high degree of inaccuracy involved — even so, the results can be surprising at times.
There are even more advanced algorithms which can reduce noise out of images (such as for medical imaging) or which can build out missing parts of photographic images based upon photographic commonalities.
Let me just say that I have not actually attempted to reverse the blurring in this photo! The caption states that the photo should not be manipulated in any way, and it would likely be against the law to attempt to prise some secret info out of it. My cropping or rotating of the photo is also not manipulation of the image – cropping and rotating are commonly done by the press in publishing photos, and are not really what they’re warning of. Unfortunately, enemy nations would not observe the niceties that I’m honoring — and they’re the ones that we should worry about extracting info from the pic!
While I think the blurring of the area of the photo was likely sufficiently lossy to successfully hide whatever it was, I’m more concerned with the fact that the laptop screen adjacent to the photo was not also blurred, and it’s reflecting a large segment of the document. While there is some degree of tiny, random artificats, or static “noise” which is throughout the photo, and the laptop screen is semi-matte and only partially reflective, I think that information found in the reflection combined with the pixelated photo could be sufficient to recreate the blurred image.
That laptop screen really should’ve been blurred out along with the document, if they wanted it to not be reversible.
Reflective surfaces in photos can sometimes have sufficient information within them in order to build out things that are hidden or missing in photos. In the situation room photo, the really interesting thing that is invisible to us is what the people are looking-at, outside of the border of the photo, assumably on a live telefeed display screen. I wondered if shadows cast in the photo, slightly reflective surfaces, and reflections in the eyes and glasses lenses of people in the picture could all be used to project out the hidden surface that we can’t see in the picture?
In my estimation, there is insufficient resolution to generate the missing display screen from the reflective surfaces of people’s eyes in the picture. But, the possibility is still there, and should inform people for the near future: as camera resolution increases further, the chances of generating such hidden data become very possible.
Finally, there’s one other piece of interesting information that was left in the situation room photograph — the notebooks under Clinton’s hand. Here’s the original size of that segment of the photo, rotated slightly, revealling very clearly the text title of the notebook:
It appears to read:
TOP SECRET CODEWORD “NOPORN”
That last word might also be “NOFORN”. The second line below it appears to read, “FOR USE IN WHITE HOUSE SITUATION ROOM ONLY.”
Could it be possible that the person charged with censoring the photo for public release missed this important detail?!? I think it is possible, because at a glance at the overall photo, the notebook could appear to be slightly over-exposed with light, and just seems somewhat blank. So, a technician could have missed this detail.
It’s been widely reported that the code-name for the Osama mission was “Geronimo”, and this codeword doesn’t match that. This code word may be a temporary password to access situation room network information, and it could be unrelated to the Osama bin Laden mission entirely. I think it’s probably temporary, and that could explain why someone might not’ve bothered to eradicate it along with the document in front of Clinton.
But, it’s disturbing to see what appears to be a confidential codeword casually published out in this manner. If it wasn’t intended to be temporary before, it probably is now!
The obvious conclusion of all this is that modern technology may be rapidly outpacing the ability to confidently censor out information from many digital images and photographs. When people think they’ve hidden something, they may not have. And, while something might be successfully hidden today, it could be that a new and better algorithm might come out in just a few weeks time that obliterates your blurring of something.
Okay, apparently the word is “NOFORN”, I’ve been told, which isn’t necessarily classified in of itself and is a label meaning documents are not releasable to other governments or “no foreign”.