Everyone is familiar with the old spy-movie cliché: Compromising microfilm copies of top-secret documents have fallen into the wrong hands and our tortured anti-hero is forced to come out of retirement an once again immerse himself in the seedy underground world of espionage in order to recover it before it is sold to the enemy. In those films, as in real life, tiny Minox cameras with their 9mm film were one of the most notorious and popular tools of the espionage community for covertly copying documents. Their popularity lasted from their invention just before WWII through the Cold War and beyond. But those cameras were expensive, the lighting had to be right, spies would have to shoot straight down on the document and then hope and pray their negatives weren’t damaged or taken before they could develop them and deliver them to their employer.
The Minox camera is now a fascinating relic of a bygone era. The purpose they once served has become laughably simple. Today, millions of people have access to far more sophisticated and advanced document copying capabilities, even if most of them don’t even realize it. Anyone with a smart-phone, such as an iPhone or Android-based phone, has access to cheap and effective document copying software using their phone’s standard built-in camera. The world has gone from Microfilm to MicroSD. But now not only can you photograph documents, the software can:
- Correct the perspective of the document if the photo is taken at an angle.
- Clarify and enhance poorly lit photographs with brightness and contrast manipulation.
- Analyze the image of the documents and convert it into an editable plain-text format.
- Automatically upload the photograph to the internet. So even if a spy is captured, his valuable intelligence can still make it back to his employers.
There are numerous applications for all smart phone platforms that handle this task. Some are better than others, though a lot of the basic functionality is present in all of them. Sometimes the biggest difference is price. Here I will cover three such applications for the Android and two for iPhone.
Apps for the Android OS
Name – Droid Scan
Price – Free/$4.99
Droid Scan comes in both a free and $4.99 version. The basic difference is that the paid “pro” version lets you create PDF files, which is great for multi-page and professional documents. The free version only lets you create compressed JPG images.
Droid Scan has really intuitive edge finding. You simply drag the selection to the corners of the documents in order to correct the perspective on the document, as well as crop out superfluous background nonsense.
Like many of these document scanning apps, it lets you share or send your images to Google Docs which will try to process it using an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) algorithm. That is to say it will attempt to figure out what is written in the document and reproduce it in an editable format. This only works well if you have really good lighting.
Droid Scan also lets you share the document over any media sharing applications you have on your Android phone. You can share over numerous applications and platforms- from Dropbox and Evernote to Facebook and Google+.
Name – Document Scanner
Price – Free/$3.98
Document Scanner scans directly to PDF and has built in E-mail, DropBox, Evernote, Google Docs and Box.net sharing support. It won’t let you chooses other sharing methods built into your phone like Droid Scan, but it is $1 cheaper. Also unlike Droid Scan, the free version is fully functional but it only lasts for 7 days. For the slight savings you get over Droid Scan you would be sacrificing a lot of functionality. If you want to become a paperless business it is probably better to spend the extra dollar and get more options.
Name – ScanToPDF
Price – Free/$.99
Scan to PDF is fully functional for free, but if you enjoy it the developers let you pay $.99 to show your appreciation. Pardon the cliché, but you get what you pay for here. It’s quick and simple but it has severely limited cropping functionality. Unlike Droid Scan and other document scanning applications it doesn’t have edge finding or perspective correction. Even the limited cropping function it has is awkward. But then again, it is free and lets you convert to PDF. It’s great if all you really want is to make PDFs out of photos you take and you hate spending money.
Apps for the iPhone
Name – JotNot Scanner/Pro
Price – Free/$4.99
JotNot Scanner provides most of the useful functionality of other document scanners. It can save multi-page PDF documents and has built-in sharing functionality with all of the major services like Evernote, Dropbox, Google Docs, and iDisk. It is currently on-sale for $.99 but usually retails for $4.99 which is just about in line with all fully featured document scanners.
Name – Genius Scan
Price – Free/$2.99
Genius Scan comes in a free and paid version as well. The main difference with Genius Scan is that it has a very simple and attractive user interface. It’s downfall is that you have to get the paid version to get any of the same sharing functionality almost all the other scanning applications have for free. It won’t share over Google Docs, Dropbox, or even Wifi without the paid version. However for just $3 it is the cheapest fully-featured document scanner on the list. If you’re looking to efficiently and cheaply move to a paperless business, Genius Scan would be an ideal solution for iPhone users.
For many these apps are a blessing, but for others it can be a nightmare.
It’s wonderful for investigators who often find themselves hunched over a filing cabinet in the middle of the night with a flashlight in their mouth flipping through folders of incriminating documents. Even in those low-light situations they can quickly snap a few photos of the information they need, compile it into a multi-page virtual format, put everything back the way it was, and sneak back out the window before anyone’s the wiser. Then they can quickly share copies of those documents while out in the field when there’s no computer or fax machine around. These applications can also be used to catalog receipts and business cards while out on the road. It’s a godsend for agencies moving towards a paperless business model.
However, it’s a nightmare for corporate security officers whose job it is to make sure critical confidential documents don’t make it into the wrong hands; especially these days, when it’s such a commonplace behavior to be sitting looking at your phone. A security officer or co-workers would be forgiven for assuming that an employee is simply being unproductive playing Angry Birds while they’re actually making covert paperless copies of the confidential document sitting in front of them.