In February, a passenger on a Singapore Airlines flight noticed something that made him uneasy: a small camera, facing directly at him from the in-flight entertainment system.
Since then, airlines have confirmed that cameras and microphones are being installed on some planes. They say the devices are permanently disabled, and no actual spying by airlines has yet been made public. Still, many passengers are concerned about the potential loss of privacy this technology could allow.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., wants answers. He’s the co-sponsor of the new Passenger Privacy Protection Act of 2019, which aims to prohibit these cameras on US flights. He recently spoke with OPB’s “Weekend Edition” and said the cameras represent an inappropriate invasion of passenger privacy.
“They have no right to listen to my personal conversations, or to be watching me as I sit there,” Merkley said. “We have so little privacy in this world anyway, do we really need big brother in the form of the airlines watching us?”
The proposed legislation would ensure that microphones and cameras are either removed from U.S. planes or permanently covered.
Merkley also sent letters to eight major U.S. airlines and 16 international carriers asking whether they have cameras in place, what the devices are used for and whether there are any plans to turn them on in the future.
American Airlines confirmed inactive cameras on some of their planes. Southwest and Frontier claim to have no such equipment, and Alaska Airlines had not yet responded.
Beyond potential privacy violations by the airlines themselves, Merkley fears these systems are prone to hacking. They could potentially be used by foreign governments to spy on U.S. citizens.
“In a number of countries, they routinely work to turn on the camera and microphone on your cellphone to spy on you with your own device,” Merkley said. “There’s certainly a possibility they could use these systems on board.
“My hope is that every airline, on every future in-flight system they acquire, that they will acquire one without cameras and microphones to begin with,” he said.
Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation from OPB’s “Weekend Edition.”