Filmmakers and journalists to camera makers: Add encryption

In an open letter, filmmakers and photojournalists say they want protection from authoritarian governments and others who are trying to seize their images.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
7 min read
"Citizenfour" director and Snowden confidant Laura Poitras is among those who signed the open letter.

"Citizenfour" director and Snowden confidant Laura Poitras is among those who signed the open letter.

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

More than 150 documentary filmmakers and photojournalists have a message for the world's major camera companies: Build encryption features into your still and video cameras.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation on Wednesday published an open letter signed by the likes of filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras, director of the Oscar winning "Citizenfour" and one of the people Edward Snowden first contacted with his NSA leaks, and Alex Gibney, who directed the acclaimed Scientology documentary "Going Clear."

The idea behind the request is that the signatories receive threats from "border security guards, local police, intelligence agents, terrorists and criminals" who try to suppress their footage and try to seize their video equipment. The thinking is that adding encryption features, which can be used to protect or lock data, would make the journalists and equipment less vulnerable.

"We work in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, often attempting to uncover wrongdoing in the interests of justice," the letter says. "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."

Encryption has become a high-profile topic as access to data and cybersecurity become bigger issues. Apple's iPhones and most phones powered by Google's Android software have built-in encryption features that are turned on by default. Same goes with Facebook's WhatsApp chat service. And earlier this year, Apple was famously in a standoff with the FBI over an encrypted iPhone used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino, California, shooting.

The foundation said it sent the letter to companies including Nikon, Sony, Canon, Olympus and Fuji.

Asked for comment, Nikon 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."

The other companies didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The signatories said they'd be willing to work with the companies to figure out the best way to implement the encryption features.

The full text of the letter is below:

Dear Canon,

We, the undersigned documentary filmmakers and photojournalists, are writing to urge your company to build encryption features into your still photo and video camera products. These features, which are currently missing from all commercial cameras on the market, are needed to protect our safety and security, as well as that of our sources and subjects worldwide.

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.

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.

Many technology companies have in recent years embraced encryption technology, often including it in their products and enabling it by default. Indeed, encryption has, in some sectors, become an industry-best practice. Apple's iPhones encrypt all data stored on them by default, as do many phones running Google's Android operating system; text messages and voice calls made with WhatsApp, iMessage, FaceTime, and Signal are all protected using end-to-end encryption technology; and laptops and desktop computers running modern versions of Microsoft Windows and macOS encrypt all data stored by default too.

However, we face a critical gap between the moment we shoot our footage and the first opportunity to get that footage onto more secure devices.

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.

Beyond the commercial motivation for adding encryption features, we know your company has commendably committed to corporate social responsibility. Building encryption into your products is not just about helping the filmmakers and photojournalists who buy them, but about making the world a better place. As filmmakers and photojournalists, we use our lenses to hold powerful people to account -- and ultimately to change society for the better. Encryption features will allow us to continue to tell the most important stories, from some of the most dangerous places in the world.

You can help us reach that goal by starting to work towards building encryption into your camera products.

Thank you for your consideration.


Over 150 Filmmakers, Photographers, and Media Workers Around the World

Abbas, Photographer, Magnum Photos

Lynsey Addario, Photojournalist, Freelance

Avi S. Adelman, Photojournalist/Editor, TheRightToPhotographInPublic.com

Cecilia Aldarondo, Assistant Professor of Film, Skidmore College

Chase Alexander, Filmmaker, Freelance

Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, Filmmaker, Independent

Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla, Director/Cinematographer, Independent

Anthony Arnove, Producer, Independent

Craig Atkinson, Documentary Filmmaker / Director, Vanish Films

Barbara Attie, Documentary Filmmaker, Attie & Goldwater Productions

Julia Bacha, Creative Director, Just Vision

Joslyn Barnes, Filmmaker, Louverture Films

Amy Benson, Filmmaker, Independent, Nonfiction Media

Amy Berg, Filmmaker, Independent

Pietra Brettkelly, Documentary Director/Producer, Independent

Emad Burnat, Filmmaker/Director/Producer, Independent

Bruni Burres, Senior Consultant/DFP, Sundance

Rebecca Cammisa, Director, Documentress Films

Gloria Carrión Fonseca, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Peggy Case, Producer, Independent

Carlos Cazalis, Documentary Photographer, Freelance

Leyland Cecco, Photojournalist/Filmmaker, Independent

Jessica Chermayeff, Producer/Director, Independent

Michael Christopher Brown, Photographer, Magnum Photos

Brenda Coughlin, Producer, Praxis Films

Eric Daniel Metzgar, Filmmaker, Independent

Amlan Datta, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Guy Davidi, Filmmaker/Director/Producer, Independent

Jessica Devaney, Producer, Independent

Romona S. Diaz, Documentary Filmmaker, CineDiaz, Inc.

Peter Dicamp, Photographer/Co-founder, Everyday Africa and The Everyday Projects

Anita Doron, Filmmaker/TED Fellow, Independent

Sara Dosa, Producer/Director, Signpost Pictures

Andrew Droz Palermo, Director/Cinematographer, Independent

Sandi DuBowski, Director, Films That Change The World

Negin Farsad, Filmmaker/Comedian, Independent

Kristen Feeley, Labs and Artist Support Director , Sundance DFP

David Felix Sutcliffe, Nonfiction Filmmaker, Independent

Field of Vision

Clayton Filipowicz, Videographer, Independent

Patrick Forbes, Director of Documentaries, Oxford Film

Jošt Franko, Photographer, Freelance

Morgan J. Freeman, Filmmaker/Founder, 11th Street Productions

Pedro G. García, Documentary Editor, Independent

Christy Garland, Director, MurmurMedia

Megan Gelstein, Senior Program Director, Catapult Film Fund

Howard Gertler, Producer, Independent

Alex Gibney, Filmmaker, Jigsaw Productions

Jim Goldberg, Photographer, Magnum Photos

Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Director and Producer, Directors Guild of America

Fred Grace, Producer, Fat Rat Films

Christopher Gregory, Photographer, Freelance

Mark Grieco, Documentary Filmmaker/Director/Photographer, Independent

David Gross, Photojournalist, ZUMA Press, Freelance

Katey Grusovin, Producer/Director/Writer, Independent

Irene Gutiérrez, Executive Producer/Director/Filmmaker, Independent

Dean Hamer, Director, Qwaves Films

Johanna Hamilton, Filmmaker, Maximum Pictures

Kiana Hayeri, Photojournalist, Freelance

NC Heikin, Director, Independent

Matthew Heineman, Filmmaker/Director/Producer, Independent

Seth Herald, Photojournalist, ZUMA Press

Tom Hurwitz, Director/Producer, American Society of Cinematographers

Cristina Ibarra, Filmmaker, Independent

International Documentary Association

Alina Ioana Vasillu, Journalist, Constanţa noastră (Romania)

Mai Iskander, Director/Cinematographer, Iskander Films

Niam Itani, Producer, Placeless Films

Tabitha Jackson, Director, Sundance DFP

Kirsten Johnson, Filmmaker/Cinematographer, Independent

Judy Karp, Sound Recordist, Independent

Deborah Kaufman, Filmmaker, Snitow-Kaufman Productions

Mark Kendall, Follow Your Nose Films

Sonia Kennebeck, Filmmaker, Independent

Gelareh Kiazand, Videographer/Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director, International Documentary Association

Geoff King, Photojournalist, Independent

Alison Klayman, Filmmaker, Independent

Vivian Kleiman, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Brian Knappenberger, Writer/Director, Luminant Media

Matthew Lawrence, Photographer, Independent

Adi Lavy, Documentary & New Media Director, Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum

Rob Lemkin, Filmmaker, Old Street Films

Elisa Levine, Director, Out of Frame Films

James Longley, Filmmaker, Daylight Factory

Avram Ludwig, Producer

Asa Mader, Filmmaker

Anne Makepeace, Director/Producer, Makepeace Productions

Jeff Malmberg, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Margarita L Martinez, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Eric Matthies, Documentary Producer and Director, Independent

Daniel McCabe, Director/Cinematographer/Photographer, Independent

Susan Meiselas, Photographer, Magnum Photos

Arturo Mendicuti Barroeta, Filmmaker, Caribou Films

Flannery Miller, Producer/Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Gabriel Miller, Director/DP, Kindred Media

Ioana Moldoveanu, Editor-in-Chief, VICE Romania

Jake Naughton, Photojournalist, Independent

Khaliah Neal, Producer, Independent

Minette Nelson, Co-founder, The Filmmaker Fund

Bao Nguyen, Director/Cinematographer, Independent

Mona Nicoara, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Orwa Nyrabia, filmmaker, No Nation Films

Ed Ou, Photojournalist, Getty Images

Trevor Paglen, Photojournalist, Independent

Heloísa Passos, Cinematographer/Filmmaker, Independent

Sierra Pettengill, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Esther Podemski, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Laura Poitras, Filmmaker, Field of Vision

PJ Raval, Filmmaker/Cinematographer, Independent

Jeff Reichert, Director/Producer, Independent

Geoffrey Richman, Documentary Film Editor

Jed Riffe, Producer/Director/Writer/Transmedia Storyteller, Jed Riffe Films + Electronic Media

Marcia Rock, Director, News & Documentary, NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute

Richard Rowley, Executive Producer, Divided Films

Bernardo Ruiz, Documentary Filmmaker, Quiet Pictures

Ashley Sabin, Filmmaker, Carnivalesque Films

Holen Sabrina Kahn, Filmmaker, Independent

David Sampliner, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Carlos Sandoval, Filmmaker, Camino Bluff Productions, Inc.

Garret Savage, Filmmaker, Independent

Justin Schein, Producer/Director/DP, Shadowbox Films Inc.

Andréa Schmidt, Journalist / Filmmaker, Independent

Nancy Schwartzman, Documentary Filmmaker App-Founder, Independent

Martha Shane, Director and Producer, Independent

Chuck Shultz, Documentarian, BluePrint Productions

Marc Silver, Director / DP / Creative Director, Independent

Douglas Sloan, Director, Icontent Films

Kathryn Smith Pyle, Filmmaker, Independent

Alan Snitow, Filmmaker, Snitow-Kaufman Productions

James Spione, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Scott Squire, Filmmaker, Independent, Nonfiction Media

Christopher St. John, Producer, Charlotte Street Films

Brett Story, Director and Filmmaker, Independent

Aiden J. Sullivan, Founder and CEO, Verbatim Photo Agency

Jon-Michael Sullivan, Photojournalist, Independent

Johnny Symons, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent/Persistent Visions

Saeed Taji Farouky, Documentary Filmmaker, Independent

Rahdi Taylor, Film Fund Director, Sundance

Jennifer Taylor, Producer and Director, Specific Pictures

Mircea Toma, President, ActiveWatch

Joel Van Haren, Director of Photography, Freelance

Rosadel Varela, Producer, Independent

John Vink, Photographer, Magnum Photos

Sweta Vohra, Television Producer, Al Jazeera International

Orlando von Einsiedel, Director, Grain Media

Anat Vovnoboy, Documentary Director, Independent

Matthew Weigand, Photojournalist, Independent

Ryan White, Filmmaker, Tripod Media

Alex Winter, Director, Independent

Pamela Yates, Creative Director, Skylight

Amy Ziering, Documentary Filmmaker, Chain Camera Pictures

Malika Zouhali-Worral, Director and Editor, Independent