United Airlines covers seatback cameras to allay privacy concerns

Passengers flying on some Singapore Airlines planes recently voiced privacy concerns after spotting cameras built into the seatback entertainment displays.

The Asian carrier said they were part of the display manufacturer’s design rather than the result of a feature request from the airline, adding that it had no intention of activating the cameras.

Now it seems that passenger anxiety over the devices has prompted United Airlines to cover the cameras on its own aircraft that use similar displays.

In a statement to BuzzFeed, a spokesperson for United said: “As with many other airlines, some of our premium seats have in-flight entertainment systems that came with cameras installed by the manufacturer.”

It described the cameras as “a standard feature” that manufacturers include for possible activities in the future, among them video conferencing.

Like Singapore Airlines, the American carrier insists that none of the cameras have ever been activated, adding that it also has no plans to use them in the future. But to reassure passengers over privacy, it said it had decided to cover the cameras on its seatback displays using small stickers.

Many such camera-equipped seatback displays appear to have been made by Panasonic Avionics and transport and technology firm Thales. According to Thales’ website, the same in-flight entertainment system has been ordered or fitted on around 1,600 planes operated by carriers that also include American Airlines, Emirates, and Japan Airlines. It’s not clear at this stage if any of these airlines plan to use the cameras for any purpose further down the line.

“Panasonic Avionics takes airline passenger privacy very seriously,” the Japanese tech firm told Digital Trends last month. “While the company does include cameras as part of its in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems, at no time have these cameras been activated or used in any manner by either Panasonic Avionics or its customers. The cameras have simply been included to support potential future applications like seat-to-seat video conferencing.”

The company added that it would “never activate any feature or functionality within an IFE system without explicit direction from an airline customer.”

It said that prior to the use of any camera on a Panasonic Avionics system that would potentially affect passenger privacy, it 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.”

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