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A New Way To Track Photographic Footprints On The Internet

Among the many potential applications are the defense of digital copyright for photographers, and the end of the hassle of online passwords.

Where do they lead?
Where do they lead?
Fabrizio Assandri

TURIN — Each and every one of the 350 million photos shared every day on Facebook, not to mention those posted on Twitter and Instagram, leaves a "digital footprint," information that sets it apart from the ocean of data constantly being fed into the Internet. Follow the footprint, and one can determine not only where the image came from, but what becomes of it — whether it is being reproduced, for example, without permission.

A team from the Polytechnic University of Turin have come up with an application that does just that. Applying the same technology the European Space Agency (ESA) will use for its upcoming Mars probe, due to be launched in 2018, researchers are able to determine, based on clues contained in each image, the specific device that took the uploaded photo, allowing users to guard against the theft of their digital property.

"This research will have diverse applications, such as the defense of digital copyright on the Internet," says Enrico Magli, coordinator of the "Toothpic" project behind the new app. "We all post photos we didn't take without a second thought."

The app works by identifying the footprints that sensors on electronic devices — from cameras to smartphones — leave on each photograph. Until recently it was impossible to compress this data and compare it in a large-scale database. But the Polytechnic team came up with a way to sidestep the problem. "We developed a technology that reduces the size of this photographic DNA by a thousand times, allowing us to research on large databases such as social networks," Magli explains.

Originally, the team didn't expect to apply their technology to photographic cameras. The concept ocurred to them almost accidentally, while attending a tech conference. From there the Toothpic project obtained 150,000 euros from the European Union to finance development of the app. In the meantime, the team applied to register two patents, one for the data compression technology and another for the large-scale use of photographic footprints. They expect to complete their project within the next three months before establishing a startup to sell the new inventions.

The Toothpic technology can do more than help people safeguard their digital copyright. At one point the team was contacted to help a photographer who had lost his camera. Another potential use is helping the police sift through millions of images to determine if an illegal pornographer, for example, has authored other illicit photographs.

The research could also abolish the use of passwords: A user could identify themselves simply by uploading a photo with their unique digital footprint. Or it could lead to new digital friendships around the world. Imagine liking a photo on Facebook and seeing a message appear putting you in contact with the author of the image — whomever they may be, and wherever they may live.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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