A viral photo showing a camera in a Singapore Airlines in-flight TV display recently caused an uproar online. The image was retweeted hundreds of times, with many people expressing concern about the privacy implications. As it turns out, some seat-back screens in American Airlines’ premium economy class have them, too.
Sri Ray was aboard an American Airlines Boeing 777-200 flight to Tokyo in September 2018 when he noticed something strange: a camera embedded in the seat back of his entertainment system.
“I am what one would call security paranoid,” said Ray, who was formerly a site reliability engineer at BuzzFeed. “I observe tech in day-to-day life and wonder how a malicious person can use it in bad ways. When I looked at the shiny new screens in the new premium economy cabin of AA, I noticed a small circle at the bottom. Upon closer inspection, it was definitely a camera.”
American Airlines spokesperson Ross Feinstein confirmed to BuzzFeed News that cameras are present on some of the airlines’ in-flight entertainment systems, but said “they have never been activated, and American is not considering using them.” Feinstein added, “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 hand gestures to control in-flight entertainment.”
After Twitter user Vitaly Kamluk saw a similar lens on Singapore Airlines and tweeted photos of the system last week, the airline responded from its official Twitter account, saying the cameras were “disabled.”
Like American Airlines, Singapore Airlines said the touchscreens weren’t intentionally designed with a camera but rather bought off-the-shelf from manufacturers with the cameras already integrated: “We would like to share that some of our newer in-flight entertainment systems provided by the original equipment manufacturers do have a camera embedded in the hardware. ... These cameras have been disabled on our aircraft, and there are no plans to develop any features using the cameras.”
Still, the airlines could quell passengers’ concerns by covering the lenses with a plastic cover, if indeed there is no use for the camera.
More and more devices have cameras built into them. From smartphones to tablets to Alexa-powered smart speakers, cameras have become the norm, rather than the exception, for most hardware — and, with security breaches of internet-connected wireless cameras becoming increasingly common, it’s not illogical to think that, if a device has a lens, someone could be watching you from the other side. It may not necessarily be the airline interested in that footage, but it’s something hackers could exploit.
Cameras aren’t the only concern. Researchers found that the internet-connected Hello Barbie doll by Mattel could be hacked, allowing people to listen in on snippets of conversation recorded by the doll’s microphone. Another “smart” toy called CloudPets inadvertently leaked 2 million recordings of parents and their kids interacting. Additionally, security experts discovered CloudPets could easily be turned into a spy device. The issue was so prevalent in the toys that the FBI issued a privacy and security notice urging parents to reconsider the gadgets as gifts.
And when Google recently announced that its voice-activated bot, Google Assistant, was coming to the company’s alarm system, Nest Guard, some customers were surprised to discover that the device had a microphone already embedded. “Have I had a device with a hidden microphone in my house this entire time?” wrote Twitter user treaseye. While Google said the device’s always-listening assistant was opt-in, could be disabled at any time, and “has not been used up to this point,” it’s unsettling to think about hidden microphones and cameras that could be remotely activated, lurking in our homes.