Cameras installed on airplane seats are nothing to fear and could one day be an accepted feature of flying, a major manufacturer of the tech has insisted.
Following widely reported concerns that the devices could be used to spy on passengers, Panasonic Avionics has said there’s no risk from the cameras already installed on aircraft worldwide.
In an interview with CNN Travel, the company’s chief technology officer, David Bartlett, said recent complaints about the cameras were an overreaction caused by “fear mongering.”
His company says that, although most cameras are not in use at the moment, they’re there to “future proof” inflight entertainment systems.
Concerns about the cameras went viral earlier this year after a malware researcher, Vitaly Kamluk, began asking questions via Twitter. The outcry prompted several prominent airlines to reassure passengers that their cameras were not activated.
In response to CNN reporting on the issue, two US senators contacted several major American carriers to demand answers.
“I understand people are wary of technology, but I do think it was a bit of an overreaction,” says Bartlett, who is also Panasonic Avionics’s chief information security officer.
“I believe it’s going to settle down, that the case to be made for positive benefits coming from cameras is stronger than any concern that they could possibly be used for nefarious purposes.”
Cameras on backs of airliner seats freak out passengers
Bartlett lists potential future uses for inflight entertainment system (IFE) cameras including seat-to-seat video conferencing or to contacting the flight attendant direct from your seat.
A possible mirror function could allow passengers to test out duty free products such as sunglasses or make-up.
Panasonic says it included the cameras in newer systems in readiness for anticipated demand.
“You have to deploy an IFE system that sometimes has to be in place for 15 years,” explains Gaston Sandoval, the company’s global head of marketing and product management. “So what is good for the airlines is, the more capability you can put in there, the more powerful you can make it – so that you can later on, bring new ideas and bring new concepts.”
As CNN reported in March, the existence of the cameras has never been a secret – but they’ve also never been widely publicized, at least until recently.
In the wake of the recent furore, passengers told CNN Travel they were concerned by what they viewed as a lack of transparency from airlines. Tech experts meanwhile raised concerns about the possibility of the cameras being hacked.
Bartlett insists airlines are not using the cameras without passengers consent.
“When people conjecture that the airlines are using it to spy on passengers and collect data, okay that’s going to cause concern, but it’s absolutely not true,” he says.
“To my knowledge, I do not believe there’s any airline using it for that purpose – we would never turn it on, it’s a set that we sell to the airlines.”
Sandoval says turning on the cameras involves “a very systematic deployment and certification.”
Bartlett added that risk from outside hackers is low.
“Compared to ground-based systems, it’s very difficult to get into these systems. It’s not going to affect any on board avionics because they’re not connected in that way, so it’s physically impossible for that.
“But with the way it’s architected and set up, it is very, very difficult for anybody get in there and use this. We have not had a single case where that’s happened. We have a cyber security team that’s highly advanced.”
Tech experts and passengers alike suggested their fears would be somewhat alleviated if the cameras could be manually covered up.
“There must be no chance of surveillance unless the passenger agrees to it,” aviation consultant Peter Lemme told CNN Travel in March. “Does this mean a physical cover plate – I think yes. I don’t know any other way that would [be] compelling to everyone.”
Kamluk, whose tweets about the cameras helped fuel the recent outcry, agreed.
“One good strategy is to give passengers a little bit more of control on their privacy level,” he says. “The manufacturers could do one simple hardware switch to enable/disable all questionable sensors such as cameras and mics.”
Bartlett says installing manual covers is a potential solution.
“I think that’s something that is an option and certainly if that’s going to give people peace of mind – because I think the cameras will have a use in the future,” he says.
“So the scenario where you open up the camera cover and opt in, and then use it for the feature and then, when you’re done, you can close it – there’s nothing more secure than that.”
So why, if there are so many possible uses, haven’t the cameras been activated yet?
“We haven’t aggressively marketed some of the use cases, we’re still developing some of the features,” Bartlett says.
“I don’t know if there’s any specific reason it hasn’t taken off. It’s a matter of marketing it, right timing, right technology,” he adds.
Bartlett notes that new concepts in aviation often take off quite suddenly – one innovative airline will start the trend and the others will quickly follow suit.
If an airline was to decide to activate the cameras, what would the process be like?
Bartlett says Panasonic would aid the carrier with activation and the airline would ensure clear instructions were provided, outlining how to use the system and how to opt in or out.
He also clarifies that any device that records people’s data is subject to privacy regulations such as the EU’s GDPR data protection law.
Legitimate fear or overreaction?
It’s commonplace for people to feel uncomfortable when they know they’re in direct view of a camera lens – but Bartlett doesn’t think seat back cameras are an issue.
“It’s an overreaction, because it’s playing to people’s worst fear and I would understand if there was a case where it was actually used for [spying] but the fact is, it’s just speculation and fear mongering and something that’s just not used – and so I just think it’s been over-hyped in most of the news,” says Bartlett.
Sandoval, however, does concede the public reaction to the cameras has been a learning curve.
He acknowledges that, as the aviation industry becomes more digital and the passenger experience more personalized, the public will continue to ask questions.
“This is kind of a very good lesson learned in my opinion, because you’re going to have to face probably more scrutiny, more questions as you start to deploy new experiences,” he says.
“I think as we evolve as an industry we have to be just cautious of all of the regulatory environments you’ve got to play with, what is the sand box you’ve got to play with, but without necessarily shying away from bringing new experiences that are valuable to passengers.”