Lance Corporal Ted "Joey" Boudreaux Jr. was bored.
It was the summer of 2003 in Iraq, the pause between the heavy lifting of the U.S. invasion and the turmoil of the insurgency, and you can joyride around the desert in a dusty Humvee only so often.
Loitering at the back gate of his base, mingling with locals, Boudreaux says he scribbled "Welcome Marines" on a piece of cardboard and gave it to some kids, who then posed with him, smiling, for a snapshot.
He e-mailed the picture to his mom, a cousin and a few friends, and he didn't think about it again. Boredom moved on.
That wasn't the last of the photo, though. The image made its way to the Internet and fell into the hands of bloggers -- Boudreaux says he doesn't know how -- except that the sign had been altered to say, "Lcpl Boudreaux killed my dad, then he knocked up my sister."
Online commentators assumed Boudreaux was playing a nasty trick on kids who couldn't read English, and the Marine was flamed as insensitive, ignorant or just plain stupid. The Council on American-Islamic Relations stumbled across the image and demanded an inquiry.
Around the same time, another image popped up on the forums of the conservative Web site freerepublic.com. Now the sign read "Lcpl Boudreaux saved my dad, then he rescued my sister," and a debate raged.
Other versions of the sign appeared -- one was completely blank, apparently to show how easily a photo can be doctored, and another said "My dad blew himself up on a suicide bombing and all I got was this lousy sign."
By this point, Boudreaux, 25, was back in his hometown of Houma, Louisiana, after his Iraq tour, and he found out about the tempest only when a fledgling Marine brought a printout of the "killed my dad" picture to the local recruiters' office where Boudreaux was serving. Soon after, he learned he was being investigated by the Pentagon. He feared court-martial. It would be months before he would learn his fate.
Falling victim to a digital prank and having it propagate over the Internet may seem about as likely as getting struck by lightning, but in the digital age, anyone can use inexpensive software to touch up photos, and their handiwork is becoming increasingly difficult to detect.
Most of these fakes tend to be harmless -- 90-pound housecats, sharks attacking helicopters, that sort of thing. But hoaxes, when convincing, can do harm. During the 2004 presidential election campaign, a potentially damning image proliferated on the Internet of a young John Kerry sharing a speaker's platform with Jane Fonda during her "Hanoi Jane" period. The photo was eventually revealed to be a deft composite of two images, but who knows how many minds had turned against Kerry by then.
Meanwhile, politicians have begun to engage in photo tampering for their own ends: This July it emerged that a New York City mayoral candidate, C. Virginia Fields, had added two Asian faces to a promotional photograph to make a group of her supporters seem more diverse.
"Everyone is buying low-cost, high-quality digital cameras, everyone has a Web site, everyone has e-mail, Photoshop is easier to use; 2004 was the first year sales of digital cameras outpaced traditional film cameras," says Hany Farid, a Dartmouth College computer scientist and a leading researcher in the nascent realm of digital forensics. "Consequently, there are more and more cases of high-profile digital tampering. Seeing is no longer believing. Actually, what you see is largely irrelevant."
That's a problem when you consider that driver's licenses, security cameras, employee IDs and other digital images are a linchpin of communication and a foundation of proof. The fact that they can be easily altered is a big deal but even more troubling, perhaps, is the fact that few people are aware of the problem and fewer still are addressing it.