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Security & privacy

Airlines cover up cameras on seat backs after backlash

When you’re on a trip, it seems more cameras are focused on you than there are pointed at actual tourist attractions. Airports, hotel lobbies, hotel rooms, Airbnbs all have cameras focusing on consumers. Now, the latest privacy invasion comes from airlines that installed entertainment consoles on the back of premium plane seats.

While the cameras have been reported on since February, it wasn’t until last month that a passenger on Singapore Airlines noticed the devices and passengers swiftly began calling foul. Now, U.S. carriers United, Delta and American have announced they are covering the cameras on their planes.

How the cameras got on planes

In early April, Singapore Airlines began getting complaints from passengers concerned about cameras embedded in the seat-back displays on some of its aircraft. They were afraid the airline might be assembling visual data about passengers during flights. The airline said the cameras were not in use and that it has no intention of activating them.

The cameras were part of in-flight entertainment systems placed in the seat-backs for premium customers. Singapore Airlines said the cameras were a standard feature installed by the in-flight entertainment systems’ manufacturers.

Panasonic Avionics is one of those manufacturers. Panasonic’s airline customers include American, United and Japan Airlines.

In and interview with Digital Trends, Panasonic Avionics said it takes passenger privacy seriously.

“While the company does include cameras as part of its in-flight entertainment systems, at no time have these cameras been activated or used in any manner by either Panasonic Avionics or its customers,” according to the interview. “The cameras have simply been included to support potential future applications like seat-to-seat video conferencing.”

Senators address the controversy

That explanation wasn’t good enough for U.S. senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and John Kennedy of Louisiana. The two sent a joint letter protesting cameras to Delta, Southwest, Frontier, United, Spirit, American, jetBlue and Alaska Air.

On April 22, the two senators introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at safeguarding passengers’ privacy in the air. Called the “Passenger Privacy Protection Act of 2019,” it would prohibit airlines from having cameras or microphones embedded in in-flight entertainment systems on any of their aircraft.

“Americans have their personal space invaded enough already when they fly,” Merkley said in a press release. “The last thing passengers need to worry about is the idea that airlines or hackers may be spying on them while they eat their pretzels. It’s time to protect Americans’ privacy and get rid of hidden cameras and microphones on airplanes.”

Senator Kennedy added, “The need for airport security is understandable, but we need to make sure that we’re not trampling on people’s privacy.”

“It’s one thing to walk through a metal detector and have your bags searched,” Kennedy continued. “It’s quite another thing to be secretly spied on while you’re having a private conversation. We shouldn’t take security to absurd levels.”

Merkley and Kennedy also pressed 16 major international carriers for more information about the current and potential uses of the systems on their planes. The senators requested the airlines respond within 30 days.

Covering them up

United reports that it has begun covering the seat-back cameras with stickers. Delta and American say they also will begin covering the cameras.

Ironically, United received the top prize for its onboard entertainment interface at last month’s annual Aircraft Interiors Expo in Germany. United’s system was created by Panasonic Avionics. App background

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