Safe and Sound? Photographers, Videographers, and the Question of Encryption

Safe and Sound? Photographers, Videographers, and the Question of Encryption

If you are a professional filmmaker or photographer working with a regular camera from any of the large makers, there is no simple and reliable way to encrypt your files in camera. To put pressure on camera makers to provide such an option, the Freedom of the Press Foundation released open letters to Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Fuji, and Sony requesting that the manufacturers add encryption. The identical letters to five major camera makers were signed each by over 150 journalists, photographers, and filmmakers and sent out on December 14.

Photojournalists and Censorship

In some sense, news photographers and filmmakers working under challenging circumstances have it better now than ever before. If they are covering events in places where freedom of expression is not guaranteed or actively threatened, they can easily encrypt and transfer files so they can no longer be deleted by the authorities. It is also trivial to take smartphone footage or images which can be posted to the internet and out of harm’s way from the very devices they have been captured on.

No longer do reporters, for the most part, need to engage in cloak-and-dagger operations such as hiding rolls of film in a packet of tea to smuggle them out of a country with a repressive regime, like photojournalists of the 1970s and 1980s did.

Yet, a significant amount of time can pass from the moment a photo or video is taken until the moment it is safe. If internet connections are spotty or nonexistent, and if there is no easy way to immediately copy pictures to encrypted hard drives, one may be stuck with SD cards full of images that are both easy to see and copy.

The arms race between journalists and governments is nothing new. The to-and-fro of leniency and censorship regarding reporting dates back at least to the Crimean War of the 1870s, when British journalists could report relatively unencumbered about the events on the battlefield. World War I then showed the governments of the world had learned their lesson: truthful reporting was spottier and official propaganda was much more prevalent. Later in the twentieth century, the Vietnam War again marked a period of relative freedom for photojournalists to get their haunting images of the conflict’s devastation to a raptly watching world. More recently, both Gulf Wars showed mostly pictures controlled by military and government. Censorship today takes many forms, not the least of which is self-censorship; both in terms of which pictures get to viewers, but also in terms of what photographers dare to take pictures of when the expectation is that they may be seen by potentially hostile authorities.

When it comes to reporting about issues that an authoritarian government would rather see not talked about, there are no one-size-fits-all answers. But the letter sent by the filmmakers and journalists, whether you agree or disagree with the idea that encryption should be built into the hardware that captures images itself, has made clear that many creative professionals feel this is something that does need to be talked about.

Blank Camera

Your camera, the blank slate? Encryption can make it at least harder to see what's on it. Photo by Ryan McGuire.

Encryption is Not a Panacea

Encryption alone will not solve many of these issues. In fact, critics say, it may exacerbate some of them. One of the most significant criticisms against in-camera encryption is that even encrypted files can be decrypted with a key. An unfriendly secret police force would have no compunction in trying to convince a reticent videographer to give up the passcode to their stash of XQD cards. But this is a smokescreen. What encryption would do is give back a measure of control back to the people who are stopped in the street, or held up in that limbo between countries, the airport border control point. 

That borders are largely lawless spaces is not only a problem in places where no free societies exist but even in democracies like the US. If no extra effort is required to download or delete data saved by a camera, then this will be taken advantage of. Even just making the decision to press someone for a password requires some effort. Some level of discretion needs to be applied. Having encrypted cards right out of the camera would put a tiny little bit more power back in the hands of photographers and filmmakers.

Encryption is not a complete solution. It would be naive to assume that the dozens and dozens of imaging professionals who signed the letter all believe that it is. What in-camera encryption might do is make it harder for nosy governments or even random thieves to get a hold of the most precious thing a creative professional or artist possesses: their work.

The Bigger Picture

Not all photographers and videographers will have concerns about encrypting their files at the point of origination, i.e. in the camera itself. Most of us will likely never have to turn over model shoots, vacation pictures, fastidiously composed landscape, or architectural images, or video of last weekend’s destination wedding. It’s easy to ignore the whole problem: if it doesn’t concern me, why should I have an opinion?

It is not only documentary filmmakers and photojournalists, however, who should care about encryption in cameras. This issue is part of a much larger discussion about which kinds of information or misinformation we allow into our homes and into our minds. The discussion about fake news and social network echo chambers in which only people who agree with each other repeat and repost may not seem like it is of immediate concern to photographers. But words are much more malleable than pictures. Even in this age of amazing software image manipulation capabilities, it is still much harder and still takes much more effort to make a picture or a video lie, than it does to just write or say words with no basis in reality. Most of us have long abandoned intellectually that photographs tell the truth, especially those of us who habitually use just the kind of software that can make them look very different from what they were. Yet, to the general population, there is still a visceral, basic truth in images. If a photo or video shows something, it happened. This is why it may matter to give the people who make these images and produce these films one, perhaps small, but perhaps consequential tool by including encryption in cameras.

As authoritarianism and repression are on the rise globally, we should have the discussion whether existing or emerging technology can contribute to the free flow of information now. That is the only way we can have a say, and not let things simply be decided for us. This much we owe to ourselves as producers of media, and to the world that consumes it.

Photo credits: Rita Morais, Ryan McGuire

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Jacques Cornell's picture

They left at least three major camera manufacturers off their list, and one of them is an industry leader in video.

Yeah, it's an odd choice. I wonder why.