Next time you're preparing for a flight, you may want to grab a stack of Post-it Notes and throw them in your bag along with your hand sanitizer, neck pillow, and earbuds.
That's because it's at least conceivable that the airlines or someone could be spying on you in your seat as you (hopefully) snooze through your time cruising above the clouds at 35,000 feet.
There was a minor kerfuffle late last week that started when a Singapore Airlines passenger noticed a front-facing camera in his seatback entertainment system.
Just found this interesting sensor looking at me from the seat back on board of Singapore Airlines. Any expert opinion of whether this a camera? Perhaps @SingaporeAir could clarify how it is used? pic.twitter.com/vy0usqruZG-- Vitaly Kamluk (@vkamluk) February 17, 2019
The airline responded several hours later with a confirmation that there are indeed lenses pointed at its passengers and a promise that they're not turned on.
"Some of our newer in-flight 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."
The discovery touched off an ad hoc investigation of the airline industry's seatback surveillance capabilities. Lifehacker asked American Airlines about similar cameras spotted on its planes.
"Cameras are a standard feature on many in-flight entertainment systems used by multiple airlines," American spokesperson Ross Feinstein told Lifehacker. "Manufacturers of those systems have included cameras for possible future uses such as seat-to-seat video conferencing. While these cameras are present on some American Airlines in-flight entertainment systems as delivered from the manufacturer, they have never been activated and American is not considering using them."
United Airlines also said cameras on its flights are not activated.
While there's probably no devious intent here, this is just the latest example of airlines failing to get out ahead of a potential controversy.
It's standard and smart practice for hardware makers to include components that are meant to be potentially activated in the future as new features are developed to take advantage of the hardware, just as Feinstein explained.
However, given all the privacy concerns swirling around society, it really was on the airlines to disclose their capability to watch all of us as we squirm in misery back in economy class. After all, any camera connected to a network -- including an airline's entertainment system -- is at least theoretically vulnerable to hackers.
Further, this whole dustup could have been easily avoided if the airlines had taken the very simple measure of covering up the camera lenses until the day when they're wanted or needed. The fact that this hasn't been done makes me wonder if the airlines would like to reserve the option of turning them on at some point, just in case.
Given all the grief and bad press some airlines have received thanks to passenger smartphone footage of conflicts between passengers and airline staff, it's not hard to imagine why airlines might want the ability to collect their own footage of such incidents.
Fortunately, there's a simple way to ensure at least a little privacy while flying in public: Just reach into your bag for that stack of Post-it Notes and stick one over that pesky camera staring at you.