Image aware: encryption of pictures in cameras is becoming a hot topic for photo journalists © Bloomberg
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When a group of more than 150 filmmakers and photojournalists last December called on Canon, Nikon and other well-known camera manufacturers to add encryption features to their products, the campaign exposed a sore spot for the camera industry.

The arrival of billions of devices connected to the internet has left everything from the television in your living room to the printer in your office — and soon the car in your garage — vulnerable to cyber attacks. Cameras that link to the internet are no exception.

Phonemakers and technology companies including Apple, Samsung and Google have battled to protect user information from being hacked by installing encryption technology into products and operating systems. In the world of photography, however, pictures and footage have frequently been seized by authoritarian governments or stolen by criminals. Yet cameras do not have built-in encryption to protect their contents.

“Because the contents of the cameras are not and cannot be encrypted, there is no way to protect any footage once it has been taken. This puts ourselves, our sources, and our work at risk,” said the US-based Freedom of the Press Foundation in an open letter in December.

“We face a critical gap between the moment we shoot our footage and the first opportunity to get that footage on to more secure devices,” added the letter, which was sent to companies including Sony and Olympus.

Analysts say the lack of security measures underscores a deeper struggle for the traditional camera industry, which has wrestled for years to adapt its products to the digital age.

The market, particularly for low-cost “point and shoot” cameras, has suffered a big downturn as consumers have turned to the convenience of smartphone cameras that allow them to take photos that can be instantly shared on social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

In 2016, global shipments of digital cameras declined 32 per cent from a year earlier to 24.2m units, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association, a Tokyo-based industry group. This compared with a peak of 121.5m units in 2010.

Companies have tried to adapt to shrinking sales and consumer trends by shifting their focus to more expensive products with internet connectivity through WiFi-equipped cameras. Sony’s latest mirrorless digital camera, the Alpha 9 — boasts a 24.2-megapixel image sensor and retails for about $4,500. It allows image files to be encrypted while being transferred to an online server, but only when using a wired connection over a home or work local area network internet connection. This does not, however, address the problem the Freedom of the Press Foundation complained about, which is the lack of built-in encryption to protect images if a camera is stolen or confiscated.

The industry’s slow response is partly down to cost and battery matters. This has led to a lack of interest in security measures among manufacturers and consumers, although more WiFi cameras are becoming available.

“Since security awareness for digital cameras among consumers is not that high, the issue is inevitably a lower priority in terms of camera development,” says Hiromi Yamaguchi, senior research analyst at Euromonitor, the business intelligence group. “Still, consumers are becoming more sensitive to [the protection of their] personal information so we can expect demand for security measures to increase in the future.”

Japan’s biggest camera makers — including Canon, Nikon, Sony and Olympus — all declined to provide details on what security measures they were studying following the calls from filmmakers and photojournalists to add encryption features to their products.

“We will consider responding if the market and user needs for security increase in the future,” says Canon, the world’s biggest maker of digital single-lens-reflex cameras, the preferred choice for professional and dedicated amateur photographers. Canon added, however, that it did not yet consider the overall market demand for security measures to be high.

Other companies point to security measures that are already built into image storing devices, although such safeguards are of little use if cameras are stolen or confiscated.

Experts say it would be a challenge to implement encryption features — such as the inclusion of a four-digit security code — without compromising convenience and user experience. This would be the case especially for professional photographers that are working under stress in combat zones and fighting against deadlines.

Critics say the lack of attention given to security measures by the most established manufacturers of cameras is testimony to the industry being hesitant to address the disruption caused by the rise of online platforms such as Instagram and smartphone photography.

“Japanese camera makers have been globally successful but that historical success is now a drag, hampering the transition to a new business model,” says Mr Yamaguchi. “That’s one of the reasons why security measures have been slow to advance.”

New industry players may fill that void for consumers who want the sophisticated imaging quality of top-quality photography, and solid security measures, combined with the convenience of compact smartphones.

Light, a Silicon Valley start-up, plans shortly to launch its first product, the L16, which claims to replace a professional digital single-reflex camera with a compact $1,700 device that fits in the palm of your hand. It can create pictures of up to 52 megapixels by computationally merging images from the camera’s 16 lenses. On the security side, the camera uses the Android operating system, which comes with inbuilt encryption as standard.

“There is nothing that has ever stopped any of the big legacy camera companies from innovating,” says Dave Grannan, Light’s co-founder and chief executive. “They have been stuck in the past literally at every level,” he adds. “Encryption is like an insurance package for a car. You never think about it until you have a car crash. But it only helps the consumer.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.