Airline Cameras Ignite Fears of Privacy Invasion in Travel Industry

Airline Cameras Ignite Fears of Privacy Invasion in Travel Industry

Video camera lens

Earlier this week, travelers were appalled to learn that Singapore Airlines’ in-flight entertainment centers located on the backs of seats have cameras. This incident had travelers curious to know if other airlines have cameras embedded in their seat back entertainment systems and it appears American Airlines does, too.

According to both Singapore Airlines and American Airlines, their cameras are disabled and they don’t have plans to use them.

Singapore Airlines tweeted a customer saying, “Some of our newer inflight entertainment systems provided by the original equipment manufacturers do have a camera embedded in the hardware.” They added, “These cameras, which were provided by the original equipment manufacturers, were disabled on our aircraft. We have no plans to enable any features using the cameras.”

An American Airlines representative echoed the statement, telling CNET: “Cameras are a standard feature on many in-flight entertainment systems used by multiple airlines. Manufacturers of those systems have included cameras for possible future uses such as seat-to-seat video conferencing. While these cameras are present on some American Airlines in-flight entertainment systems as delivered from the manufacturer, they have never been activated and American is not considering using them.”

However, customers aren’t satisfied with these answers, calling on airlines to notify their passengers of the cameras or get rid of them all together. From these news stories a bigger question has arisen: are travelers’ privacy being invaded with technology?

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When it comes to the cameras built into the in-flight entertainment systems, customers are worried that the cameras are gathering surveillance footage of them, regardless of the airlines’ claims the cameras are disabled.

Surveillance footage has been used in the past to document people’s behaviors and used by brands to market to consumers. This isn’t too far off from the recent story that Privacy International broke in January 2019, that showed that TripAdvisor and Kayak are sharing personal information, like flight details, cabin class or whether they’re traveling with children, with Facebook.

While the story didn’t involve camera footage, it highlights how travelers’ privacy can be gathered and used for profit by travel companies without travelers’ knowledge.

Perhaps more concerning with the entertainment center cameras is a worry that hackers may be able to access the cameras and use them to record or gather personal information from travelers.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Last year, hackers breached Marriott and Starwood, which affected about 383 million travelers, and garnered access to the information of 9.4 million Cathay Pacific passengers. If hackers can access security information from these travel companies’ data centers, some wonder, what’s to stop them from accessing these cameras on planes, too?

If that isn’t enough to worry travelers, perhaps many of the most newsworthy stories of 2018 will.

Not only were customers concerned with these big hotel and airline data hacks, but they were extremely unnerved when information about the Quiet Skies program was leaked in mid-2018 by the Boston Globe, highlighting how the TSA uses federal air marshals to spy on thousands of ordinary travelers who are not suspected of terrorism or any crime as they go through airports and board planes.

While the Quiet Skies program uses real-life people to spy on travelers, discussions arose on how airports are invading travelers’ privacy with new technology systems like facial recognition scanners. A study in 2018 at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University’s law school discovered that the Department of Homeland Security’s facial recognition scans are invasive surveillance that improperly gathers data, has high rates of error and is biased toward women and African-Americans.

While an IATA study found that travelers want more automation, the study also highlighted that travelers equally want to know that their privacy is secure.

More automation generally means more technology and if the viral fear that has surfaced over the cameras on Singapore Airlines and American Airlines proves anything, it’s that travelers are still wary of how airlines, hotels, airports, travel apps and other travel businesses are protecting their privacy through technology.

Or worse, if they’re invading it.


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