If you discovered that you’re under constant surveillance of a watchful eye, you would probably feel pretty shocked and uneasy.
Well, brace yourself, because chances are, you are being spied upon, and in an airplane cabin of all places! We are as taken aback as you are.
No, this is not a conspiracy theory. There is concrete proof that there are hidden cameras on planes, and in a place that you would least expect.
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Secret Cameras on Planes—the Discovery
In February of 2019, a malware research worker, Vitaly Kamluk, was onboard a Singapore Airlines flight.
He was caught unaware when his wife pointed out something suspicious below the inflight entertainment screen. She misjudged it to be an “interesting sensor.” However, the researcher’s expert eye was quick to suspect that it was actually a camera.
This incident was reported by CNN travel, which revealed how uncomfortable the customers felt upon realizing a digital eye was gazing at them.
Kamluk was quick to action. He tweeted images of the discovery and tagged Singapore Airlines. As expected, his post blew up, and the airline was bound to reply.
What the Airlines Had to Say
All Singapore Airlines said was that their in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems, which are manufactured by companies like Panasonic Avionics and Thales, come equipped with an embedded camera. However, the camera is deactivated, so passengers can breathe easy.
Naturally, people were agitated. As it turns out, Panasonic Avionics supplies IFE for many other major airlines like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines. Soon flyers discovered similar cameras on Qantas, United, and Emirates flights. These airlines started to face backlash.
Once again, the airlines responded quite nonchalantly. They neither use those cameras, nor plan to use them anytime in the future, as they have been “disabled.”
Then why are those cameras installed in the first place?
Embedded Cameras on Flights—the Backstory
Panasonic Avionics and Thales, two of the largest global IFE manufacturers, have been working on this feature since 2017 and 2013, respectively. They made announcements, but not much attention was paid to them. That is, until now.
The reason is an interactive in-flight experience.
Panasonic Avionics partnered with Tascent, a biometrics and identity innovation company, in 2017. Thales has been developing eye-tracking and hand gesture-control technology since 2013. Both of their projects require cameras.
Here are some of the ways these cameras can be used:
- Biometric identification to expedite onboard immigration
- Seat-to-seat video conferencing
- Seat-to-ground video conferencing
- Motion-activated control of movies
- Interactive gaming
- Smart lighting and brightness control
- Digitally branded frames for selfies
- Payment processing aid for onboard shopping
However, all of these require special software that none of the airlines have installed, and don’t plan to install anytime soon, according to their statement.
Maybe you can trust the airlines’ intentions. But, is that enough reason to feel secure?
Conspicuous Seat Back Cameras—Is Your Privacy Assured?
There are two reasons for public outrage:
- Passengers were not informed of this update, and their consent to sitting in front of a camera was never given;
- Just because the airlines claim to not use these cameras, it doesn’t prevent any third party from misusing them.
Both of these are valid causes for concern.
The reason Vitaly Kamluk was alarmed was that, as a security expert, he could imagine many unsafe scenarios that are a threat to privacy. There isn’t a shortage of malicious people. Hackers can enable cameras and get the information they want.
Let us present a brief list of the most likely security breaches that can occur:
- VIP passengers’ conversations may be eavesdropped on, resulting in leakage of confidential information
- Your passport information can get photographed
- Sensitive device data like passwords and pin codes might be disclosed
- Breach of personal information that can aid blackmails and scams
- Terrorist schemes
Sure, the risk is higher for well-known, important people who hold power and money. But, are you sure that implies you won’t be targeted? Crooks are not merciful to the public either. In fact, you may be more vulnerable than an executive or multimillionaire.
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The Simple, but Ingenious Solution: Post-It Notes
Yes, the world is dark. But, there is no need to break into a sweat just yet. Sometimes complex problems have simple solutions.
Kamluk suggested an easy solution in this regard. Airlines can just put a sticker on the seat-back cameras to physically disable them. That way, even if a hacker breaks into the system and enables the cameras, there will be a physical layer of protection. They can’t get through that digitally. It can also ensure that the airlines are not using those cameras without the passengers’ knowledge.
However, you can and should take matters into your own hands. Just bring some post-it notes and stick them onto the IFE cameras before you take your seat. Take them off before you get off the plane, or just leave them be. It might serve as a bright neon hint for the airlines that they should be taking care of this, not you.
When it comes to international travel, safety is your responsibility. You have to be smart with the choices you make. This can include a precautionary measure like covering the seat-back camera, or something as simple as purchasing travel insurance. A travel insurance plan is designed to provide financial protection in the case of unexpected travel mishaps, such as flight cancellations, luggage delays, or loss of baggage. It’s one more step you can take to ensure you’re doing all you can to travel safely and securely.
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