Digital cameras can store a wealth of personal information and yet they're treated as unworthy of extra protection -- both by courts and the camera makers themselves. The encryption that comes baked in on cellphones hasn't even been offered as an option on cameras, despite camera owners being just as interested in protecting their private data as cellphone users are.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation sent a letter to major camera manufacturers in December 2016, letting them know filmmakers and journalists would appreciate a little assistance keeping their data out of governments' hands.
Documentary filmmakers and photojournalists work in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, often risking their lives to get footage of newsworthy events to the public. They face a variety of threats from border security guards, local police, intelligence agents, terrorists, and criminals when attempting to safely return their footage so that it can be edited and published. These threats are particularly heightened any time a bad actor can seize or steal their camera, and they are left unprotected by the lack of security features that would shield their footage from prying eyes.
The magnitude of this problem is hard to overstate: Filmmakers and photojournalists have their cameras and footage seized at a rate that is literally too high to count. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a leading organization that documents many such incidents, told us:
"Confiscating the cameras of photojournalists is a blatant attempt to silence and intimidate them, yet such attacks are so common that we could not realistically track all these incidents. The unfortunate truth is that photojournalists are regularly targeted and threatened as they seek to document and bear witness, but there is little they can do to protect their equipment and their photos." (emphasis added)
Cameras aren't that much different than phones, even if they lack direct connections to users' social media accounts or contact lists. We've covered many cases where police officers have seized phones/cameras and deleted footage captured by bystanders. The problem is the Supreme Court's Riley decision only protects cellphones from warrantless searches. (And only in the United States.) While one state supreme court has extended the warrant requirement to digital cameras, this only affects residents of Massachusetts. Everywhere else, cameras are just "pockets" or "containers" law enforcement can dig through without worrying too much about the Fourth Amendment.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like camera manufacturers are considering offering encryption. The issue still doesn't even appear to be on their radar, more than a year after the Freedom of the Press Foundation's letter -- signed by 150 photographers and filmmakers -- indicated plenty of customers wanted better protection for their cameras. Zack Whittaker of ZDNet asked several manufacturers about their encryption plans and received noncommittal shrugs in response.
An Olympus spokesperson said the company will "in the next year... continue to review the request to implement encryption technology in our photographic and video products and will develop a plan for implementation where applicable in consideration to the Olympus product roadmap and the market requirements."
When reached, Canon said it was "not at liberty to comment on future products and/or innovation."
Sony also said it "isn't discussing product roadmaps relative to camera encryption."
A Nikon spokesperson said the company is "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."
And Fuji did not respond to several requests for comment by phone and email prior to publication.
The message appears to be that camera owners are on their own when it comes to keeping their photos and footage out of the hands of government agents. This is unfortunate considering how many journalists and documentarians do their work in countries with fewer civil liberties protections than the US. Even in the US, those civil liberties can be waived away if photographers wander too close to US borders. If a government can search something, it will. Encryption may not thwart all searches, but it will at least impede the most questionable ones.