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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Are The Airlines Spying On Us Yet?

At one point, a couple decades ago, some of the high-end airlines introduced a privacy feature for first class travelers: enclosed cabins. A flight attendant could stand oh his or her toes and took over the wall, but otherwise you could do whatever you wanted in privacy. Apparently, too many people did and they seem to have abolished them. Now it looks like they're introducing the opposite: tiny cameras that can watch you during the flight. Do you think that's a little intrusive? You're watching a move and "someone" is watching you-- an airline employee? a government entity?

Last month, CNN reported that Singapore admits they have embedded cameras in their newer inflight entertainment systems but claim they're deactivated. "Deactivated?" Why are they there then-- in order to be activated next week or the week after?
The fact that some aircraft seats have built-in cameras is not new knowledge. Singapore Airlines' inflight entertainment system is manufactured by Panasonic Avionics, a US-based company that supplies IFE for many of the major airlines and French company Thales. Panasonic announced a while back that it's added cameras onto seat backs.

And in 2017, Panasonic Avionics announced a partnership with Tascent-- a biometrics and identity innovation company.

"The companies will combine Tascent's biometric identity devices, software and services with Panasonic Avionic Corporation's in-flight entertainment and communications systems to provide streamlined, easy-to-use identity recognition before departure, during flight and upon arrival," read the corresponding press release.

The idea was seat-back cameras could facilitate onboard immigration, skipping lines when you land. It was also suggested that a seat-back camera could aid payment processing for onboard shopping.

At the 2017 Dubai Airshow, Panasonic Avionics announced the latest incarnation of Emirates' IFE in First Class and Economy-- specifying it featured a camera, plus a microphone and speaker.

In the age of the smartphone, everyone holds a tiny cinema in their hand, so there's certainly an expectation that airlines will have exciting entertainment options-- a screen simply showing movies won't cut it anymore.

But has Emirates ever done anything with its on-board cameras?

"Some of our 777 aircraft have cameras that came pre-installed with the inflight entertainment hardware that we had purchased from the manufacturer (Panasonic)," a spokeperson for the Dubai-based airline told CNN Travel. "It was originally meant for seat-to-seat video calls, however Emirates has never activated it."

This echoes Singapore Airlines' comment on the issue.

"These cameras have been intended by the manufacturers for future developments," the airline says. "These cameras are permanently disabled on our aircraft and cannot be activated on board. We have no plans to enable or develop any features using the cameras."

Meanwhile, American Airlines told CNN Travel that cameras are "a standard feature," but are not activated and the carrier has no plans to use them.

A spokesperson for Aussie carrier Qantas also told CNN Travel that IFE manufacturers include inbuilt cameras as standard-- and said the airline couldn't activate the cameras, even if they wanted to.

"The feature would require software in order to be activated, which Qantas doesn't have and doesn't plan to install."

Air New Zealand and British Airways told CNN Travel there were no cameras on board any of their aircraft.

Two images obtained by CNN Travel of an IFE system on a British Airways airplane depict what looks like a lens of some kind. BA describes it as an infrared environmental sensor rather than a camera.

But are airplane seat cameras a bad idea? Some aviation experts think they could improve the onboard, inflight experience.

Joe Leader, CEO of aviation trade body Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) think there's several handy usages for these cameras.

As well as facilitating video chat between passengers, the cameras could look out for passengers becoming unwell or monitor cabins for suspicious behavior.

The cameras could also be used to spot human trafficking or assault-- acting as an extension of the air steward's eyes.

As for the privacy concern, APEX points out the ubiquity of cameras in 21st century society.

"Today, airline passengers are typically tracked outside the aircraft dozens of times on a typical journey through stores, security, roadways, and airports by cameras without any permission," APEX says in a statement.

"In contrast, airlines only want to use cameras in the future with permission when technology has advanced to offer personalized service improvements that passengers desire."

Hacking fears, suggests APEX, are "misplaced."

"The greatest risk to airline passenger privacy breaches come from their own smartphones, tablets, cameras, computers, and smart devices used in private settings, " says APEX.

The concern for some fliers is that even if the existence of these seat-back cameras aren't a secret-- and even if they could facilitate some cool features-- it feels disingenuous that their presence isn't advertised.

When contacted by CNN Travel, Panasonic Avionics stressed that it was committed to the privacy of passengers.

"Panasonic Avionics will never activate any feature or functionality within an IFE system without explicit direction from an airline customer," the company said in a statement to CNN.

"Prior to the use of any camera on a Panasonic Avionics' system that would affect passenger privacy, Panasonic Avionics would work closely with its airline customer to educate passengers about how the system works and to certify compliance with all appropriate privacy laws and regulations, such as [The EU's data privacy regulation] GDPR."

But although Panasonic Avionics and the airlines say the cameras are currently deactivated-- they're not physically covered up and passengers remain worried about hacking.
These systems are expensive and they're not just there so they could be not used. The airlines should stop bullshitting their customers for a change. One consumer advocacy group pointed out that "Air travel is already fraught with ineffective and invasive breaches of our personal privacy. But now the airlines themselves have gone even further with cameras and microphones pointed at passengers as they watch movies, eat snacks, or just sleep. And the implications of in-flight cameras are even bigger than the discomfort of the airline watching you sleep on a red-eye. It’s still unknown to what extent the federal government could be able to acquire that data, without a warrant or probable cause, or process the camera footage through faulty facial recognition programs that misidentify women and people of color."

I'm old enough to remember when flying was a treat. That was a long, long, long time ago. Are you thinking I'm being too alarmist here? If so, take a look at this. "German Chancellor Angela Merkel has introduced a bill that would allow German spy agencies to hack into nearly any computer and conduct espionage on a wide swath of citizens and foreigners. Drawn up by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the bill greatly expands the espionage powers of Germany’s intelligence service, the bnd. Although Seehofer has been notorious for opposing the chancellor on many occasions, he seems to have persuaded her to support this latest bill. This time, opposition is coming from Merkel’s coalition ally, the Social Democratic Party (spd). The spd justice minister has expressed outrage at one clause in particular, which would allow spies to collect information on children under 14 years old. The justification for this clause rests on the 2016 case of a 12-year-old who was involved in a plot to bomb a Christmas market.
Many Germans are critical of the bill. “This amounts to a massive extension of intrusive surveillance,” said Sven Herpig, a researcher from the New Responsibility Foundation. Germany’s Left Party also condemned the bill, calling it a “catalogue of Orwellian fantasies.”

In the recent past, however, many similar “fantasies” have become reality.

In 2017, Germany proposed an “unprecedented spate of new surveillance and security laws.” Most of these were passed and are in force today, yet they are rarely discussed.

The biggest concern is currently the government’s State Trojan spyware law. This allows government spyware to be covertly installed on a target’s mobile phone. The spyware can lie dormant for a set period of time, remaining undetected for years, before being activated to collect data on the user’s calls, chats and Internet activity. And this isn’t limited to phones; the spyware can also be used to spy on people through smart devices, like speakers or fridges that can connect to the Internet, greatly infringing upon privacy rights.

Before the State Trojan law was passed, only the federal Criminal Office had the power to employ this method of espionage. Now this power is in the hands of the state itself.

The new law also grants permission for the bnd to use this spyware against foreigners. Both the Criminal Office and bnd have expressed a desire to “cooperate more effectively against ‘transnational’ threats, such as terrorism and organized crime.”

Airlines in Germany are bound to collect and retain the contact details of their passengers, means of booking, payment, and even seat choice, for up to five years. Although presented as an EU requirement, critics have said that this law goes well beyond what is required by Brussels.

Other laws passed in 2017 regulate increased video surveillance of public areas and more detailed research into the background of migrants, both of which came in the aftermath of the 2016 Christmas market terrorist attacks.
Last month, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and John Kennedy (R-LA) sent a joint letter to Delta, Southwest, Frontier, United, Spirit, American, JetBlue, and Alaska, noting their concern about a possible "serious breach of privacy."
While Americans have an expectation that they are monitored in airports as a necessary security measure, the notion that in-flight cameras may monitor passengers while they sleep, eat, or have private conversations is troubling. Further, in light of data breaches that have impacted many major airlines, we have misgivings that cameras or sensors may not employ the necessary security measures to prevent them from being targeted by cybercriminals.

For these reasons, we respectfully request that the following information be provided regarding the cameras on in-flight entertainment systems:
1- Does your airline currently use, or has ever used, cameras or sensors to monitor passengers;
2- If yes, what purpose do the cameras serve and in what circumstances may the cameras be activated;
3- If you have or currently do utilize cameras or sensors to monitor passengers, please provide details on how passengers are informed of this practice;
4- Please provide comprehensive data on the number of cameras and sensors used by your fleet, and the type of information that is collected or recorded, how it is stored, and who within your airline is responsible for the review and safekeeping of this information;
5- Further to the above, please confirm what security measures you have in place to prevent data breaches of this information, or hacking of the cameras themselves; and
6- Are the cameras used in any biometric identity capacity, and if so, under what authority?
We look forward to learning more about these practices and request a response within 30 days.