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It’s a hard knock life out there for many photographers. In our increasingly digital culture, access to photos and images is pretty much a Google search away. With so many photos floating about the web, there’s no real incentive for people not to steal and use photos that aren’t their own without permission from the photographer. To help combat the scourge of photo bandits, a project called ToothPic is being launched to develop a database of “camera fingerprints” to help photographers in the fight against copyright infringement.

Time for a little dose of obvious: cameras don’t actually have fingerprints. However, the sensors inside digital cameras possess extremely minute differences, meaning that, just like a human fingerprint, no two cameras are exactly the same. Known as sensor pattern noise, these slight variations in a camera’s sensors cause every camera to leave a subtle, unique “fingerprint” at the pixel-level on every single photo it snaps. Now that these “fingerprints” can be searched for and identified, ToothPic is swooping in to save the day.

Short for “Who Took This Picture,” ToothPic was launched in late 2015 by Professor Enrico Magli of the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy. Funded by an EU grant, Magli is using ToothPic to develop a database of camera “fingerprints” to stop the widespread issue of unethical or illegal photo usage. “What we do is really to make the fingerprint easily searchable and optimized to make it as fast as possible,” Magli says of the project. Breakthroughs in this field have made it possible and scalable for a large database to be cultivated of camera “fingerprints” in an efficient manner.

Magli’s put together a team of photo crime fighters who are currently in the midst of downloading 50 million photos from Flickr and crunching their pixel data in computers to produce a proof-of-concept about camera “fingerprints.” Once this is completed, ToothPic will launch a demo version of a web app that will enable anyone to upload photos and check them against ToothPic’s database to see where it originated. The inevitable goal is to incorporate ToothPic’s technology into Internet search engines so that anyone can simply plop a photo into a search bar and find photos taken using the same camera. This could prove crucial in not only identifying copyright infringement, but also preventing the theft of cameras. The most important weapon in a photographer’s arsenal just might become a ToothPic.

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