150 Filmmakers Ask Nikon and Canon to Sell Encrypted Cameras
In the summer of 2013, when documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras was shooting a still-secret NSA leaker named Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, she took security seriously. She’d periodically transfer her footage to encrypted hard drives, and would later go so far as to destroy the SD cards onto which her camera recorded. But as she watched Snowden through her lens, she was haunted by the possibility that security agents might barge through the door at any moment to seize her camera. And the memory card inside of it remained dangerously unencrypted, full of unedited confessions of a whistleblower who hadn’t yet gotten his secrets out to the world.
“When you’re in the field filming and your camera is taken by authorities, that footage is completely vulnerable,” Poitras says. “That’s where encryption is really needed.”
That risk Poitras took in filming one of the world’s most-wanted individuals—footage that would eventually become part of her Academy-Award-winning documentary Citizenfour—highlights a forgotten oversight in the security of modern devices: Nearly all smartphones today encrypt their storage by default, and encrypted storage software for PCs is free and reliable. But cameras, even the ones in the hands of photojournalists and documentary filmmakers capturing sensitive images and video, still don’t offer encrypted storage of video and images as a feature.
Now Poitras and 150 other documentary filmmakers have signed an open letter from the non-profit Freedom of the Press Foundation to camera-makers Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Sony, Fuji, Kodak and Ricoh. The foundation, which has both Poitras and Snowden on its board of directors, is asking those companies to add the encryption features missing from virtually every standalone camera on the market, so that no thief, cop, or border agent can access their footage simply by grabbing the device out of their hands. (Full disclosure: My wife, filmmaker Malika Zouhali-Worrall, also signed.)
“We work in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, often attempting to uncover wrongdoing in the interests of justice. On countless occasions, filmmakers and photojournalists have seen their footage seized by authoritarian governments or criminals,” reads the letter, whose signatures include a total of four Academy Award winners and 14 nominees. “Because the contents of their cameras are not and cannot be encrypted, there is no way to protect any of the footage once it has been taken. This puts ourselves, our sources, and our work at risk.”
A Needed Safeguard
Plenty of the filmmakers who signed the letter have already experienced firsthand the threat of surveillance and heavy-handed law enforcement that makes encryption necessary. Poitras, even before filming with Snowden, was repeatedly detained at the US border, and had her cameras and computers seized after she was put on a watchlist due to her filmmaking in wartime Iraq. Filmmaker Andrew Berends in 2008 swallowed a SIM card from his cellphone in an attempt to prevent Nigerian police from identifying the sources who had helped him to document conflict in the Niger Delta. And when Syrian filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia was detained for three weeks by dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in 2012, he says that encrypting his hard drive “saved his life.” When another filmmaker’s unencrypted laptop was seized by Syrian police around the same time, he says, 11 people had to flee the country. “When you’re in a conflict zone, you don’t have the energy or concentration to do a long process of encryption,” says Nyrabia. “It just doesn’t work that way.”
Beyond filmmakers, photojournalists are just as vulnerable. The Committee to Protect Journalists says seizures of photojournalists’ cameras and other devices occur so often “that we could not realistically track all these incidents,” according to the group’s activism director Courtney Radsch.
Given the direction that all these other technology companies are going to protect information, we really think camera companies need to follow suit. Trevor Timm, Freedom of the Press Foundation
Yet even as tech companies like WhatsApp and Apple have implemented default encryption in their products strong enough to flummox US law enforcement, standalone camera manufacturers haven’t—perhaps due to the technical challenge, the financial burden, or a combination of both. Third-party software makers, like Canon-focused Magic Lantern, have experimented with adding aftermarket encryption features to cameras, but the code remains relatively untested and requires a complex process of altering the camera’s firmware that goes beyond the average user’s comfort zone.
That means camera makers themselves need to build encryption features into their products from the start, says Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director Trevor Timm. “Given the direction that all these other technology companies are going to protect information, we really think camera companies need to follow suit,” he says.
Worth the Effort
WIRED reached out to all those camera companies for their response to the letter, which was sent Tuesday afternoon, but only heard a response from Kodak before the Freedom of the Press Foundation made its letter public today. A Kodak spokesperson pointed out that the company still focuses on sales of film, and that the Kodak video cameras for which it licenses its brand are aimed at consumers and “aren’t designed for motion picture use or production.”
In its letter to the camera companies, the Freedom of the Press Foundation doesn’t detail exactly what encryption features it wants manufacturers to include. But Timm suggested to WIRED that an opt-in feature should effortlessly encrypt video and images as they’re being recorded. And those files would only be decrypted when the user enters a password on their camera or the computer onto which the files are offloaded.
Implementing that feature wouldn’t be simple—particularly in high-definition cameras that have to write large files to an SD card at a high frequency, says Jonathan Zdziarski, an encryption and forensics expert who also works a semi-professional photographer. Integrating encryption without slowing down a camera would likely require not just new software, but new microprocessors dedicated to encrypting files with maximum efficiency, as well as security engineering talent that camera companies likely don’t yet have. He describes the process as “feasible,” but potentially expensive. “I don’t expect Nikon or Canon to know how to do this the way computer companies do. It’s a significant undertaking,” says Zdziarski. “Their first question is going to be, ‘how do we pay for that?’”
But the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Timm argues that any camera company that’s first to market with encryption features would have a “significant competitive advantage.” Poitras agrees. “For me, if there were a camera that provided encryption and had the same quality, it would be a no-brainer,” she says.
And beyond profit, Timm argues camera makers, like the rest of the tech industry, have a responsibility to protect their customers—particularly those using their devices in dangerous regimes and taking on powerful governments. “It’s not a simple problem to solve, but we think it is solvable,” says Timm. “These camera companies make billions of dollars a year. They can more than afford to put extra effort into protecting some of their most important customers—ones who are trying to shine a light on corruption and make the world a better place.”