‘How my photo ended up breaking Android phones’

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Gaurav Agrawal, a scientist and amateur photographer living in San Diego, couldn’t believe it when he suddenly started seeing a photograph he took last summer popping up on the news.

He took it at St Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana, one “magical evening” in August 2019. He shared the snap on photo platform Flickr and thought no more about it.

However, a glitch meant that when the image was set as wallpaper, it caused some Android phones to fail. The handsets would switch on and off repeatedly, requiring a factory reset which meant all data on them was wiped.

“I didn’t do anything intentionally,” he said. “I’m sad that people ended up having issues.”

It seems to happen on some but not all brands of phones running Version 10 of the Android operating system. It is not advisable to test it out.

“It was a magical evening,” Mr Agrawal said of the night he took the photo, in the park with his wife. It was their third trip there, in pursuit of the perfect picture. “It was gloomy and cloudy, and we thought there wasn’t going to be a great sunset. We were about to leave when things started to change.”

He grabbed the shot on his Nikon camera, and later did a small edit using the editing software Lightroom. And that’s where the bug crept in.

Lightroom gives three colour-mode options for exporting the finished result – and the one he picked is the one that seems to confuse some Android handsets. He was unaware of the glitch because he had never tried it.

“I didn’t know the format would do this,” he said. “I have an iPhone, and my wallpaper is always a photo of my wife.”

Mr Agrawal has over 10,000 followers on the photography platform Flickr and has had his work published by National Geographic magazine.

“I hoped my photograph would have gone ‘viral’ for a good reason, but maybe that’s for another time,” he said. “I’m going to use another format from now on.”

For those who do not know the background, Ken Munro and Dave Lodge from security firm Pen Test partners have an explanation of what went wrong:

“As digital photographs have improved in quality, phones need to check what the image ‘colour space’ is to work out how to display it properly. It’s how a phone knows how to display exactly the right shade of green, for example.

“There are different ways of defining the colour space. Some spaces have specialist uses in graphic design, so sometimes you’ll see images that aren’t in the usual ‘Standard RGB’ format. It’s also possible to deliberately create images that have more colour information than some devices can handle.

“What’s happened here is that the way some phones deal with these cases has gone wrong.

“The phone crashes because it doesn’t know how to deal with it correctly, and the software developers probably hadn’t considered this might happen.”