Some Photoshop users can try Adobe’s anti-misinformation system later this year

Adobe has released more details on its Content Authenticity Initiative, a system for permanently attaching sources and details to an image. The project is meant to mitigate two problems: artists losing credit for work and newsworthy images being manipulated or taken out of context. It’s set for a limited debut on Adobe’s Photoshop software and Behance social network by the end of 2020, and Adobe hopes for wider adoption soon after.

Adobe pitched the CAI last year as a general anti-misinformation and pro-attribution tool, but many details remained in flux. A newly released white paper makes its scope clearer. The CAI is primarily a more persistent, verifiable type of image metadata. It’s similar to the standard EXIF tags that show the location or date of a photograph, but with cryptographic signatures that let you verify the tags haven’t been changed or falsely applied to a manipulated photo.

People can still download and edit the image, take a screenshot of it, or interact the way they would any picture. Any CAI metadata tags will show that the image was manipulated, however. Adobe is basically encouraging adding valuable context and viewing any untagged photos with suspicion, rather than trying to literally stop plagiarism or fakery. “There will always be bad actors,” says Adobe community products VP Will Allen. “What we want to do is provide consumers a way to go a layer deeper — to actually see what happened to that asset, who it came from, where it came from, and what happened to it.”

The white paper makes clear that Adobe will need lots of hardware and software support for the system to work effectively. CAI-enabled cameras (including both basic smartphones and high-end professional cameras) would need to securely add tags for dates, locations, and other details. Photo editing tools would record how an image has been altered — showing that a journalist adjusted the light balance but didn’t erase or add any details. And social networks or other sites would need to display the information and explain why users should care about it.

Adobe originally announced Twitter and The New York Times Company as partners, and the CAI specifications will be freely available under an open source license. Allen says Adobe has also talked to other social networking companies. “We’re having really active conversations across the board with lots of different companies,” he says, including “everyone you would imagine” in the world of social networking.

The white paper adds more detail about how different kinds of creators would use the tools. A photojournalist might care primarily about proving a picture’s provenance. They would want a CAI-enabled camera to provide the initial metadata, a Photoshop record for edits, and certificates identifying the source. A digital artist might only want to attach their name and a link to a website with more details, which would also be provided via CAI.

Adobe has also worked with human rights organization Witness.org to make the tool work for non-journalists documenting human rights abuses. This includes adding options that preserve important factual data (like locations and any manipulation history) without storing personally identifying information.

You can already find systems that cover some of CAI’s features. The Guardian Project and Witness.org, for instance, maintain an app called ProofMode that adds cryptographically signed metadata for anonymous citizen journalists. But Adobe is trying to create a unified system that it can convince mainstream sites to integrate.

Getting web users to check and trust metadata appears to be one of Adobe’s key challenges. In addition to nailing down some raw technical specifics, like the method for issuing and storing trusted certificates, the company and its partners are testing how to provide relevant data without overloading users. “It’s up to the different publishers and platforms to decide what that experience is, and that’s something we’re really diving into with a lot of our partners,” says Allen.

A CAI prototype will initially launch on Adobe-owned products: a “subset” of Photoshop users will be able to tag their photos and add those photos to Behance, and a verification site will let anyone check a CAI-tagged picture’s metadata. There’s no firm timeline for adding it to Twitter or rolling it out across third-party apps, but Allen says Adobe is “pushing aggressively” for a launch.

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