The Freedom of Press Foundation, along with 150 documentary filmmakers, ask manufacturers to add camera encryption to their models.
Wired provides some background to this story. In 2013, as filmmaker Laura Poitras worked with Edward Snowden for her movie, she made sure to secure everything. Every so often, she transferred footage to encrypted hard drives, and even destroyed the SD cards after using them. But she realized that at any moment, security agents could barge in, seize her camera and take the unencrypted memory card inside.
Poitras told Wired:
“When you’re in the field filming and your camera is taken by authorities, that footage is completely vulnerable. That’s where encryption is really needed.”
Camera encryption seems to be an oversight, and one that no camera maker offers at the moment. Technology like computers, smartphones and electronic storage devices all offer encryption—in some cases by default.
Over 150 filmmakers, along with the Freedom of Press, wrote and signed an open letter to camera makers. The letter reads in part:
“As filmmakers and photojournalists who value our own safety and the safety of our sources and subjects, we would seek out and buy cameras that come with built-in encryption. Adding these data security features to your product line would give your company a significant competitive advantage over other camera manufacturers, none of whom currently offer this feature.”
You can read the full letter here.
The camera manufacturers in question include Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Sony, Fuji, Kodak and Ricoh. Many of the filmmakers have already experienced threats of surveillance and law enforcement.
For example, before she even filmed Snowden, security at the US border detained Poitras multiple times. They seized her cameras and computers and put her on a watchlist. This was due to her filming in Iraq, during wartime.
In 2008, filmmaker Andrew Berends swallow a SIM card from his phone so Nigerian police couldn’t identify the sources who helped him document conflicts in the Niger Delta.
Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad detained filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia for three weeks in 2012. Nyrabia said that encrypting his hard drive “saved his life.” He goes on to say:
“When you’re in a conflict zone, you don’t have the energy or concentration to do a long process of encryption. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Camera Encryption Solutions
Freedom of Press executive director Trevor Timm suggests that manufacturers should encrypt videos and images as they are recorded. But Jonathan Zdziarski, encryption and forensics expert as well as semi-pro photographer, says it’s not easy.
Real-time camera encryption is complex, especially for the models that write big files to SD cards at a high frequency. Building in encryption without slowing the camera down would require new software, as well as new microprocessors dedicated to encryption.
“I don’t expect Nikon or Canon to know how to do this the way computer companies do. It’s a significant undertaking. Their first question is going to be, ‘how do we pay for that?'”
But Timm goes on to argue that any camera company with the first to offer an encrypted camera would have a big advantage. Laura Poitras agrees, saying “For me, if there were a camera that provided encryption and had the same quality, it would be a no-brainer.”
Going beyond profit, Timm says that camera makers, like the tech industry, have a responsibility to protect their customers. Especially if said customers travel to dangerous countries in defiance of governments.
Motherboard also reported on the matter. It contacted five companies, but only two—Nikon and Olympus—responded. Neither said anything definitive.
A Nikon spokesperson said:
“We are constantly listening to the needs of an evolving market and considering photographer feedback, and we will continue to evaluate product features to best suit the needs of our users…”
An Olympus spokesperson said:
“…The Directors of Olympus KeyMed have an ongoing commitment to the local community…in view of current global economic crisis, the underlying business conditions over recent months have toughened for Olympus…we have had to carefully review and rationalize our commitments.”
Manufacturers Canon, Sony and Fuji didn’t respond to several requests for comment. In a message to Motherboard, Trevor Timm said:
“The response…so far has been incredibly disappointing…It’s depressing to see these manufacturers barely respond to some of their most important and vulnerable customers…”
In the meantime, we’ll have to wait to see if a big camera maker, or even a startup, is willing to delve into camera encryption.