Photography experts are thinking ahead about problems that may be encountered in the future with digital photography. They say we need to start preparing for how that photography will be archived so it will be accessible to the next generations of law enforcement.

Protect the legacy of today’s digital photos

THIS HAS PROBABLY HAPPENED TO YOU: You are sorting through a box in the basement and you come across a tattered, sepia-tone photo of a woman standing on a sidewalk. Immediately, there is a sense of holding history in your hand. But that woman’s face staring out at you from many decades ago does not look familiar. Maybe she’s a family member. Or maybe she’s just some lady who caught your Great Uncle Ralph’s attention as she passed on the street so he took a quick, playful snapshot.

You turn over the photo to see if any information is written on the back. Nothing. So you shrug and lay the photo aside, intending sometime in the future to show it to an older relative to see if maybe, somehow, they can recall its significance.

We are touched on a regular basis by the legacy of film-based photography. But we are moving ahead at a steady pace into the age of digital photography—and it seems there is no looking back.

Digital photography offers so many benefits, especially to the law-enforcement community. More pictures can be taken without the concern of using up a lot of costly film. A properly managed digital-image database offers a number of easy search options to quickly find the picture you’re looking for. Digital photos are easily shared with investigators and prosecutors. Experts also argue that it is easier to prove the origin and authenticity of a digital image than a 35mm image.

But some of those same experts are also starting to think ahead and make arguments about problems that may be encountered in the future with digital photography. They say we need to start thinking about how all of those digital photographs are archived—not just a few years from now, but decades down the road. And the example of the tattered, unmarked photograph that opened this editorial proves their point in two ways:

First, your inability to recognize the woman in the picture is analogous to computer software of the future. Memories change. So do file formats. Right now, JPEG and TIFF are common formats for image files, but that is guaranteed to change in the future. The technology of 2028 may not be able to recognize a crime-scene photo saved as a JPEG file in 2008. That’s a real problem.

Second, consider the fact that you were actually holding that old photograph in your hand. How tangible is a JPEG file from the 2008 crime scene? In its most basic form, it is nothing but ones and zeros. A simple failing of the media it is saved on—media that has yet to prove itself in the test of time—means a certain end to that very important image.

We think that problem is a very real concern. So we spoke with David Knoerlein in this issue’s featured interview (Page 20) to find out more about the strategies that law-enforcement agencies may want to employ in order to ensure the lasting legacy of their digital images—to make them more recognizable, more tangible, and more useful to the next generations of law enforcement.

Kristi Mayo, editor
Evidence Technology Magazine

Editorial, "Protect the legacy of today's digital photos," written by Kristi Mayo
September-October 2008 (Volume 6, Number 5)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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