AMITIAE - Tuesday 17 November 2015

Cassandra: Using Reflections in Photographs to Identify Suspects, Acquaintances and Locations

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By Graham K. Rogers


Identification of suspects has always been of prime importance to law enforcement agencies. This includes crimes already committed, and the supply of information to criminal intelligence systems so that serious offences may be prevented. With advances in forensic computing, some examination of reflections within photographs may help to identify persons and locations, so adding to information about a suspect.

In recent times, there has been considerable publicity concerning the efforts by security agencies to increase their abilities in the area of surveillance. While there is a major need for the types of intelligence gathering that may be done by digital means, there are justifiable concerns over the fine line between security and privacy.

Traditional policing has relied on various forms of forensic examination as a way of collecting evidence. Many are familiar with such areas as fingerprint searches, as well as dental identification. A wide range of physical sciences, such as metallurgy, are used to collect evidence from materials used in a crime or found at the scene. Also to be considered in this area are the examination of materials used in bombs which may be chemically analysed to pinpoint their sources. This could also include electrical or mechanical accessories of exploded or unexploded devices and the reassembly of such parts.

More recent developments include forensic computing, as considerable amounts of evidence of culpable activities may be stored on a modern computing device: finding that, or retrieving data when it has been deleted may assist prosecution, or add to the picture of a suspect's activities.


Photographs have often played a part in the chain of evidence. Like identification of handwriting or typewriter use, expert opinion would be offered. In the case of the photograph, evidence might be given as to the examination of the untouched negative, as a way to prove the veracity of a photograph produced in evidence.

The advent of the digital camera changed presentation of evidence. It is possible to alter any image, although expert analysis should reveal the extent over and above simple enhancement editing. With the relative cheapness of DSLR cameras, along with the widespread nature of smartphones (with cameras incorporated) and other small devices capable of being used to produce photographs, there has been a major expansion in the numbers of images now produced.

As many of these images are in the public domain, for example uploaded to and displayed on social networking sites (e.g. FaceBook) their availability could be a major resource in intelligence gathering, although powerful search and analytical algorithms are needed to make best use of these.

Research by R. Jenkins and C. Kerr in the UK examined the feasibility of being able to pick out subjects from eye reflections in photographs. That study was limited in a number of ways: the use of a digital Hassleblad H2D-39 camera; the use only of corneal reflections; and the concern only with identifying persons. Commenting on this, I noted then that "elements within the image . . . might be identifiable in terms of location were the technology to be improved."


Most photographs are not taken with a high-end camera, so identification would depend on relative quality of output. Many photographs displayed on social networking sites, such as Facebook or Instagram are of a lesser quality, so as with much investigative (police) work, an element of luck may apply. Law enforcement must work with what they have and the chances of being able to examine a high density digital image are lower.


Recent developments in the cameras installed in top end smartphones are capable of producing far better images than before. This is in part due to the better lenses, camera units and recording media; but improved software has also played a significant part.

A local photographer opined (in a phone conversation) that when taking photographs of animals or birds, the image was useless unless the eye was in focus. The same would apply to persons, but reflections in a photograph are not limited just to the eye. Subjects may be wearing glasses (sunglasses particularly are good reflectors of light) and it is likely that a photographer may appear in a shot along with other visual details.


Reflections from subjects (eyes, glasses) may give up a considerable amount of useful detail. Scenes may also contain other reflective material, such as mirrors or windows. These may assist in identifying not only other persons near the subject or photographer, but can reveal significant detail about where a photograph was taken, or perhaps even when.

While the study by Jenkins and Kerr provides a useful start, the analysis of other reflections in an image may be as valuable in creating a profile of subjects, their whereabouts, and their associates, that there is a case for new search methods to be developed.

Politicians often seek justification for new laws that erode freedoms by citing three specific reasons for the greater legal powers: terrorism, organised crime, child pornography. For this article, the first two are paired.

In this paper, terrorism and crime are linked because both types of criminals will resort to violent means to reach their goals; and many of those engaged in such activities are shadowy figures, unlikely to seek publicity. Also related is a point that some terrorist activities are funded through criminal activities, such as narcotics. Information from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is useful here as well as the comments on E. Durnagöl, in "The Role of Drugs in Terrorism and Organized Crime"; and N. Gulabzoi, in "The Narco-State of Afghanistan", .

The use of images may not produce direct evidence of a person's involvement in such activities, but is more likely to be peripheral in building a case: a sighting of a known associate, for example, at a specific location may be added to a piece of forensic evidence, adding to a profile and thus strengthening the knowledge of a criminal. Subsequent actions by the authorities who will have created a multi-dimensional picture will increase safety for those on the ground, aid in interrogations and help in securing convictions.

Child Pornography
While pornography has been available for many centuries (D. D. Frederick, Conquering Pornography) the participants usually consent. Web sites that display images and/or video may show disclaimers that the models are over the age of 18 and that they retain documentary evidence to prove this: for example 18 U.S. Code § 2257 (Harvard Law Review).

Child pornography is different (18 U.S. Code § 2256). Although the US definition gives 18 as the age of a minor, many of the victims are too young to be aware of right and wrong, will do what they are told by an adult, and run the risk of injury or disease. Circulation of images and videos of such acts is secretive, mainly because distribution is against the law in most countries. However, the age of consent may differ depending on the laws in any country.

Nonetheless illegality and secrecy go hand in hand and A. Greenberg, Wired, citing research by G. Owen, of the Computer Chaos Club,as presented to Congress, reported that 83% of traffic to Tor relate to pedophilia. Also reported by Greenberg, the figure was shown to be "only 2 percent of total traffic over Tor's anonymizing network."

Where pornography differs from terrorism in one important aspect is that where terrorists and criminals seek to hide, the most successful pornographic images are of good quality, although this may not follow in all cases, particularly with regard to amateur output. Focus and sharpness are attributes that can be used to collect evidence, build a case, and in some cases secure convictions.

Rather than set up a specific experiment using a high quality Hasselblad digital camera as was the case in Jenkins and Kerr, I examined images that had been taken over a period of a few months. This would be the normal situation for many user libraries. The cameras used were Nikon D70s, Nikon D7000, Apple iPhone 5s and Apple iPhone 6.


Although there were some portrait photographs, the project concentrated on street photography, to parallel the types of input that authorities might be faced with: scenes, people, closeups. All of the images had been imported into Apple's Aperture workflow application on a late 2013 13" MacBook Pro with Retina display, with a 512 GB SSD drive and 16 GB memory, running various versions of OS X, up to 10.11, El Capitan.

Images from the Nikon cameras had been imported as RAW in Nikon's NEF file format, while those from the iPhones were mainly in JPG (a compressed format). Other output formats might be available depending on specific applications and settings. I used the loupe in Aperture to enlarge those specific parts of the image that had reflections.

Some of the images had been edited but for these purposes that may be immaterial: those that will be used for tracking suspects are likely to be online and may have been edited, enhanced, cropped or sharpened before uploading. In addition, those on sites, such as Facebook or Twitter will not be the best images available: authorities would have to work with what can be found.

Several of the projects were examined to find images that might give up information. Eyes, spectacles, windows, screens and mirrors were all potential sources of information.


In an album of 277 images (Pedalo), several revealed minor information in vehicle mirrors, particularly those fitted to motorcycles as the vehicles may be parked in such a way as the mirrors an other reflective surfaces point in several directions. Train windows and windows of other vehicles would sometimes show scenes that were clearly outside the photo frame. Water, although reflective, is unlikely to show much, especially if it is moving, because of the angle the light hits the camera lens. Reflections from eyes provided images that were most easily identifiable

Modern high rise buildings are often reflective, although the image may be broken by the number of individual panes; or there may be distortion with a larger expanse of glass. Likewise, a shopping mall or station may have large sections of glass that will reflect details of location or persons that were not in the shot itself.

Other types of surface that reveal some image content include computer screens (including ATMs), especially if the screen is dark.


While the best smartphone used in the initial survey of images was the iPhone 6, I now have iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus smartphones. These are not included in the original images examined, but early results show good image quality. It is clear that as new smartphones appear, so the manufacturers will increase capabilities and the output will improve.

Using specific reflections was shown to be viable by Jenkins and Kerr, although the equipment used was too specialised. The testing was fairly limited with the controlled images that were used. Nonetheless, it was a pointer to the use of reflections as a way to bring in peripheral data: information that might help fix a location, identify associated or otherwise build a case against a possible suspect. While direct evidence would be preferable, in many cases these types of images would be more valuable in building intelligence on an individual or group.

The use of images of the type that are more likely to be found on a user's computer (or other device) is important as these types of photographs are more likely to be found on social networking sites and thus be more accessible by authorities. An example is the identification of the Facebook page of a suspect in the 13 November 2015 attacks on Paris. Doubtless, security forces in many countries will examine the photographs found on that page in an effort to identify other locations and persons connected to Hadfi.

In these and other images, the reflections might reveal more than the subjects would have wanted.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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All content copyright © G. K. Rogers 2015