A seatback in an aeroplane

Airlines are installing tiny cameras in their seat backs

Not long ago, in the days of angry rock music and disenfranchised youth, it was cool to be isolated. Society sucked - and the further from it you and your friends could place yourselves, the better.

In the internet age, however, everything is different. “Broadcast yourself”, YouTube told us. Now, front-facing cameras have invaded our lives. We went from complaining about CCTV to bringing it into our own homes and constantly holding cameras up to our faces which we hope aren’t spying on us.

This alarming trend is all the more poignant this week, as news has broken of airlines placing small cameras in front of each passenger. Located in the seat-back, the tiny lens is in just the right position to record passengers during one of humankind’s most expensive activities.

Seatbacks in an aeroplane Credit: Getty

The camera was the subject of a tweet by Vitaly Kamluk, who works in malware research. His wife noticed the peep-hole camera, remarking that it looked like some sort of sensor. "She felt general discomfort of a digital eye looking at her,” Kamluk told CNN Travel. “I believe that's a common reaction of general passengers.”

It has been determined that the cameras are present on planes operated by a number of airlines. Kamluk added: "I was quite surprised to actually see something like a camera and as a security expert I could imagine many scenarios of misuse of such sensors which is why I decided to ring the bell."

The tweet gained almost 1,000 likes and was brought to the attention of the airline the couple flew with. “Hi there, thank you for reaching out to us,” Singapore Airlines responded. “We would like to share that some of our newer inflight 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,” Singapore Airlines stated in a second tweet. While it’s relieving to hear that the cameras are not recording people, it seems strange that airlines - including Emirates and Qantas - would purchase such seemingly invasive hardware. “Thank you,” Singapore Airlines added.

The curious equipment can be traced back to a 2017 press release. The document details a partnership between Panasonic’s in-flight entertainment and communications contingent, Panasonic Avionics, and biometrics company Tascent.

"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 press release.

Seatbacks in an aeroplane Credit: Getty

The same year, at the Dubai Airshow, Panasonic Avionics unveiled their new in-flight entertainment system for first class and economy passengers flying with Emirates. They explicitly mentioned that the setup features a camera, microphone and speaker. British Airways stated that they never have cameras in their seat-backs, though some of their planes have seat-backs fitted with infrared sensors.

"Passengers should understand that this is not about government or airline conspiracy against them," Kamluk, a malware expert, said. "I am sure that it's not in the interest of the airlines to spy on their passengers.”

"The true risk comes from potential unauthorised access to these devices from a powerful malicious [attacker],” he explains. “As far as IFE [in-flight entertainment] is connected to the Internet, there is a possibility of [a] remote hack and espionage if such devices can be activated in software."

Emirates plane Credit: Getty

"These may potentially result in VIP passengers' communications being eavesdropped, passport data being photographed while filling customs declarations, entering of [a] secret PIN code or password to unlock user's devices may be recorded on video," he adds.

It is curious that electronics giant Panasonic predicts we will soon be this numb to having cameras watching us - that this technology will not be tolerated but enjoyed. They are perhaps only guilty of assuming the aforementioned trend will continue.

While shows like Black Mirror encourage us to scrutinise modern technology and its uses, on the other side of the screen, we may be marching towards a similarly dystopian future.

It seems 1984's watching-you-watching-me scenario, whereby screens are always accompanied by cameras, is becoming more of a reality. But luckily, in this case, a simple solution could help in the fight against the unseen enemy. I knew there was a reason I kept those Apple stickers.