The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From Jay Z and Solange to Rep. Vance McAllister, how does security footage get leaked?

Placeholder while article actions load

The now widely-seen security camera footage of R&B singer Solange attacking her brother-in-law Jay Z (while her sister Beyonce stands by) in a hotel elevator has left everyone asking the same question: what, exactly, prompted that violent outburst? But it also raises another question – how did that footage get leaked, anyway?

Welcome to the world of security cameras in the digital age, where it can take nothing more than an iPhone to cause an increase of private surveillance footage made public.

The prevalence of smartphones and the ease of which people can simply and surreptitiously hold up their own mobile devices and record security videos has led to this boom. In the Jay Z clip, check out the shaky camera work and those green dividing lines that reveal other shots from different security cams; the leaked clip of Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) kissing his district office staffer had a similar look, making it clear that what we saw was a video of a video.

And that, experts say, is a new privacy breach that is nearly impossible to stop. At the end of the day, it’s simply not an issue that a security system or individual company can predict – especially when someone spots a goldmine moment on a surveillance camera and starts to see dollar signs.

“It would be very, very difficult to prevent,” said Jeremy Warren, innovation vice president at security company Vivint. “If you have human monitoring of video in a hotel or office building, preventing someone who’s able to watch these videos and do something like record it on their phone? It’s not very easy to do.”

What is incredibly easy, however, is for the person that filmed the footage to ship it over to TMZ. (The gossip site was the first to show the Solange-Jay Z video.) It’s becoming very common for people to want a quick payday, or the kind of online micro-stardom that comes with uploading a really popular video that can be anything from a celebrity tantrum to an everyday woman texting while walking and falling into a fountain at a mall. There’s an ingrained temptation to share and try to profit that’s hard to resist.

By name alone, security footage is supposed to be, well, secure. Most times, it is. But security experts agree that there are many new challenges that have led to a much higher risk of videos getting out into the public. However, security experts have a few ideas on how to curb the leaks.

First and foremost, don’t put cameras in a semi-public security guard station where anyone can walk by, said Luis Orbegoso, security company ADT’s president of small business. Plus, limit the number of people who can watch the cameras, whether it’s via in-house security or an outside contractor.

Certain businesses have especially strict policies in place, such as banning personal cell phones from rooms with cameras – that’s common in high-security areas of government buildings, according to Fredrik Nilsson, general manager of video surveillance provider Axis Communications.

Companies can also limit how many people have access to security cameras, or even password-protect the ability to review past footage. (The drawback to this is that it would take longer to track something in real-time during an emergency.) Some places can get really meta and install security cameras to watch security cameras. There are also background checks on anyone who has access to surveillance, in addition to warnings of punishment if privacy is violated.

Those steps can still only go so far, as the Standard hotel found out this week when Solange and Jay Z were captured in their elevator scuffle. “We are shocked and disappointed that there was a clear breach of our security system and the confidentiality that we count on providing our guests,” a hotel spokesperson said in a statement, which promised a full investigation and prosecution of the person responsible.

Besides the risk of cellphones capturing footage, it’s also pretty simple for someone manning a security camera to upload video themselves – especially now that surveillance can now be accessed via WiFi and remotely through a personal laptop, or even a phone or iPad. You would think that would inspire companies to get serious about Internet security. But according to several experts, some businesses don’t even put passwords on their WiFi accounts, leaving them extremely vulnerable to hackers.

But elaborate schemes perpetrated by outsiders are rarely to blame; most leaked footage comes from the people sitting right there in front of the source material.

Culprits do get caught – that mall security guard who uploaded the woman-falling-into-a-fountain-while-texting footage to YouTube got fired. And some companies have records of who is stationed in security camera rooms at all times, so they can look back at timestamps for clues about who could have distributed a video.

Despite all the risks, sometimes temptation is too great, especially since people can just pull out their phone and be one “record” button away from money or YouTube stardom.

Matthew DiMicco, owner of New York-based Total Security, said “without a doubt” there has been a spike in recent years of these leaks – and while companies take many precautions, it could continue.

“The more and more people who have cameras,” he said, “The more and more video can be leaked out.”