How Google's Magic Eraser Could Erase Trust in Photos

Seeing isn't always believing

  • Google’s Magic Eraser is now available on any Android phone. 
  • Photo-enhancement tools can also be photo-fakery tools.
  • It’s up to the viewer to remain skeptical of modern images.
Google Magic Eraser in action, erasing children at the beach


Google's new Magic Eraser tool will remove blemishes and distractions from images, either automatically or manually. Will we still be able to believe what we see?

With the number of AI retouching tools already available, it's already impossible to know whether that beautiful photo came from an equally beautiful scene or whether the app fixed up the sky, beautified the faces, and now, whether it has removed people or objects. And with Magic Eraser, photographs can be even more misleading than ever, with almost zero effort from the user.

"It is true that AI image correction and enhancement tools have developed significantly in recent times and can now produce extremely realistic and convincing results, but it is crucial to remember that these tools are made to improve photographs rather than to fabricate or manipulate them beyond recognition," professional travel photographer Kevin Mercier told Lifewire via email. "Although AI tools for enhancement can be effective, they are not perfect. Particularly if they are not used correctly or if the user is not experienced at using them, they can make errors and produce results that are unrealistic or artificial-looking." 

Deep Cuts

Google’s Magic Eraser, previously available only on its Pixel phones, is now open to any Google One member on Android or iOS, and it works like this: Say you take a fantastic portrait, but there’s a person in the background, maybe wearing brightly-colored clothes. That person ruins the shot. Or maybe it’s a traffic sign, or some other piece of street furniture that cannot be removed, or a car spoiling an otherwise idyllic landscape photo. 

Magic Eraser can detect these blemishes and offer to remove them. It then fills the gap by extending the background (hopefully) seamlessly. If the app doesn’t detect the parts you want to remove, you can just select them yourself—an option that has been available in plenty of apps for years. You can also opt to “camouflage” the offending elements by changing their color, muting that red-shirted bystander to gray, for example. 

It’s an excellent tool for cleaning up images, and even better now that it is automatic. But its new widespread availability opens up some big questions about AI photo manipulation in general. 

Erased From History


Even if you only use this tool to remove annoying objects from your holiday snaps, you're altering your memories. Just like using a beauty filter to clean up your face or remove a zit, it makes the picture more pleasant, but at the expense of accuracy. 

That might not matter to you but think about those old historical B&W photos you see hung on the walls of some bars and restaurants. Those were probably just amateur snapshots at the time but have since morphed into fascinating historical records. And in some cases, those photos might be the only surviving images of lost places and so on. 

We tend to believe what we see, and in the case of those old prints, that's probably a safe bet. But now imagine how we'd view those images if we knew they, too, had been manipulated by something like our Google Magic Eraser tool. 

In truth, we probably wouldn't even think about it. Images are so trusted as a source of truth, and sight is our most trusted sense. Seeing is believing, we say. When you scroll through your Instagram, do you stop to think that a photo may have been manipulated? We all assume that a picture may have been tweaked or "filtered," but unless the edit is obvious, we then accept it at face value. 

Those were probably just amateur snapshots at the time, but have since morphed into fascinating historical records.

"Doubts about the veracity of photos go back almost as far as the practice of photography. Altering photos has been done in a variety of ways over the years, and it became much easier to achieve with the launch of Photoshop. While Magic Eraser is definitely quicker and easier than these methods, it's not ultimately that different from its predecessors in the space," Ben Michael, attorney at Michael and Associates, told Lifewire via email. "I would say that, on the whole, people would be well served by developing a bit more healthy skepticism about the veracity of all kinds of media, including photos, videos, and audio recordings. All of them can be faked or manipulated in one way or another." 

And the problem obviously gets worse for photos of record, like news photos, especially as many of these are now sourced from bystanders' images while the professional photojournalists are fired. Photos published as news should theoretically be held to a higher standard, but in the end, it's up to us to remain skeptical. 

"Ultimately, it is up to individuals to determine the credibility of the images they encounter. It's critical to take into account the image's creation context and search for additional supporting documentation to verify its authenticity. We can make sure that, despite technological advances, we maintain our belief in the authenticity of photos by approaching them critically," said Mercier.

Update 3/9/2023: Corrected the name of the Magic Eraser tool throughout the story.

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