from the a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-passwords dept
Encryption has become one of the key issues in the digital world today, as the many posts here on Techdirt attest. And not just in the tech world, but far beyond, too, as governments grapple with the spread of devices and information that cannot easily be accessed just because they demand it. Techdirt readers probably take crypto for granted, as an increasing proportion of Web connections use HTTPS, mobile phones generally offer encryption options, and hugely-popular mainstream programs like WhatsApp deploy end-to-end encryption. But a recently-published open letter points out that there is one domain where this kind of protectively-scrambled data is almost unknown: photography. The letter, signed by over 150 filmmakers and photojournalists, calls on the camera manufacturers Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus and Sony to build encryption features into their still photo and video camera products as a matter of course. Here's why the signatories feel it's necessary:
Without encryption capabilities, photographs and footage that we take can be examined and searched by the police, military, and border agents in countries where we operate and travel, and the consequences can be dire.
That's certainly true, and encryption would place an important obstacle in the way of the authorities seizing cameras and accessing the material they hold. However, it is only an obstacle, not real protection. Assuming encryption is widely implemented in cameras, repressive governments will have a number of options open to them for dealing with it.
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 all over the world. 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.
They might simply pass laws that forbid the use of cameras that encrypt images. By declaring them illegal, governments could seize them at the border or whenever they are found. However, that's a fairly mild response. If the material on a camera seized by the authorities turns out to be encrypted, many would demand the password. If the photographer is lucky, a refusal might mean being thrown out of the country, probably without the camera. In the worst case, government thugs and criminals may try to obtain the necessary passwords the old-fashioned way -- by beating it out of the phtographer.
What is needed is an approach that avoids those risks. Maybe it would be possible to create hidden partitions on the camera's storage so that sensitive images could be stored there, while giving the authorities access to other less controversial shots. That still runs the risk of the camera being impounded and/or destroyed. Other options might be to transfer the sensitive stuff to tiny wifi-enabled SD cards that are hidden in specially-designed objects -- wristwatches, wallets, pens, buttons, etc. -- or to the cloud, if Net connectivity were available.
Encrypting cameras is certainly a great idea, not least because it helps to make crypto even more mainstream than it already is, and encourages people to expect it everywhere (although Nikon for one doesn't seem too enthusiastic about the proposal). But it's just a first step to address the serious threats faced by photographers in many parts of the world, something that would doubtless benefit from additional kinds of technical ingenuity.