That in-flight entertainment screen might be looking right back at you.
In March, software security researcher Vitaly Kamluk found what looked like a camera embedded in the seat-mounted entertainment screen. When Kamluk began asking questions on Twitter, he got a response from Singapore Airlines saying that the device was indeed a camera but that they were ‘permanently disabled’ and that the airline had ‘no plans to enable or develop any features using the cameras.’
A few days later, Buzzfeed reported that American Airlines had similar cameras installed in their in-flight entertainment systems. A representative from American said, “[the cameras] have never been activated, and American is not considering using them.”
So why are there cameras in inflight entertainment screens anyway? The cameras are part of the latest generation of in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems designed by Panasonic and Thales, the two largest manufacturers that supply the IFEs. Although most IFE cameras aren’t currently activated, manufacturers are adding them to “future proof” the systems.
Panasonic’s chief technology officer David Bartlett says fliers are increasingly expecting a “connected experience” while onboard modern planes. He said the cameras could be used for seat-to-seat communication, video calling someone on the ground, or even as a virtual mirror, allowing passengers to try on items like sunglasses from the duty free shop.
According to Bartlett, much of the hand-wringing over cameras in seat-back entertainment systems was overblown. “I understand people are wary of technology, but I do think it was a bit of an overreaction,” Bartlett told CNN.
On some airlines, cameras are already used for passenger communication. In its first class suite, Emirates includes a portable tablet that passengers can use to communicate with the crew.
Many tech experts say the camera is a security vulnerability and could be hacked. In 2016 a hacker revealed a security vulnerability that could allow an attacker to change display data like altitude and speed, steal credit card info and even get access to flight controls. In response to the reporting about the cameras, two US senators got involved, writing a letter to eight major airlines to ask if cameras were being used to monitor passengers.
Still, many passengers are uncomfortable with a camera staring at them for the duration of their flight. One proposed solution is to install a switch or cover that physically disconnects or otherwise blocks the camera’s view, but so far no such tool has been implemented. In the original Twitter thread, some users recommended using old-fashioned tape or chewing gum to block the camera’s view.
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