Airline seat-back cameras: Are you being watched?

A camera was first noticed on the back of an airline seat by a passenger on a Singapore Airlines flight. Twitter user Vitaly Kamluk posted a picture of the camera that looked to be part of the inflight entertainment system (IFE), asking: “Just found this interesting sensor looking at me from the seat back on board of Singapore Airlines. Any expert opinion of whether this a camera? Perhaps @SingaporeAir could clarify how it is used?”

A former employee of American Airlines also confirmed s/he had seen a camera in one of its aircraft. Going back to June 2017, The Points Guy said in a post that a camera was spotted as well.

Both airlines confirmed the cameras do exist. We already knew that based on eye-witness accounts. However, the airlines said the cameras had not been activated and were just part of “off-the-shelf parts from manufacturers.” Both carriers said they had no plans to use them in the future.

Then in 2018, multiple airlines confirmed that cameras had been installed in their entertainment systems. Airlines which included Singapore Airlines, Emirates, and American all said they had no plans to activate the cameras.

Just yesterday, Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific confirmed it is monitoring passengers via onboard cameras. The carrier outlined its information gathering in an updated privacy policy published just days ago at the end of July 2019.

Cathay confirmed it is collecting images of passengers while they are on board, but says images are captured via CCTV cameras fixed around the airplane and not from embedded seat-back cameras. A Cathay spokesperson said similar devices have not been installed in its IFEs. The spokesperson said it is standard practice to protect customers and frontline staff and that there are CCTV cameras installed in its airport lounges and onboard aircraft for security purposes.

However, the airline also admitted to monitoring passengers’ usage of the in-flight entertainment system and how they spend time during the flight. In its revised privacy policy, the airline says data collection is designed to improve the flying experience with additional personalization. The policy also states that data could be shared with third-party partners for marketing purposes. The policy adds: “We will retain your Personal Data for as long as is necessary.”

Although the airline cameras may be inactive, they still present a privacy risk, because any camera attached to a connected device has at least some risk of being hacked. Think along the lines of the Google microphone which could overhear users from their devices. Same thing for users of Alexa listening in on the house when supposedly in an inactive mode, meaning no person had engaged it with a question or command.

“The true risk comes from potential unauthorized access to these devices from powerful malicious attackers. As far as IFE is connected to the Internet, there is a possibility of remote hack and espionage if such devices can be activated in software,” he said.

Panasonic Avionics, which supplies some IFE systems for Cathay Pacific, previously said fears of surveillance and privacy breach are “a bit of an overreaction.” The company says seat-back cameras will soon become an accepted part of flying, offering opportunities for seat-to-seat video conferencing, among other usages.

Much like an “owie,” all these airlines have to do to fix the potential harm of invading creatures is to put a bandage over the camera. Just cover the lens! That’s what United Airlines did to allay customers’ fears about their privacy.