In-flight entertainment (IFE) systems are readily available on most planes, especially on intercontinental flights. Recently, some passengers have noticed that not only were they watching the screens on the back of the seat in front of them, but they suspected that the screens were watching them.
This week, a passenger on a Singapore Airlines flight detected a camera built into his IFE screen, while another passenger on an American Airlines flight saw something similar. So what exactly is up with these cameras on planes? Are they spying on us?
In a statement to Business Insider, American Airlines said, "Cameras are a standard feature on many in-flight entertainment systems used by multiple airlines. 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."
Singapore Airlines added, "Some of our newer IFE systems provided by the original equipment manufacturers do have a camera provisioned and embedded in the hardware," an airline spokesman told Business Insider. "These cameras have been intended by the manufacturers for future developments."
"These cameras are permanently disabled on our aircraft and cannot be activated on board," he added. "We have no plans to enable or develop any features using the cameras."
In 2017, however, Panasonic Avionics stated that it was studying how eye tracking could be used to improve the passenger experience. Cameras could be used for identity recognition on airplanes. This data would enable in-flight biometric payment, like Face ID on Apple devices, and customized services.
IFE systems are not manufactured by airlines, though they can customize the systems. American Airlines, for example, sources their IFE systems from Panasonic while Singapore Airlines IFE systems come from Panasonic and Thales. A representative from Thales said that the cameras in their systems are deactivated and cannot be initiated in-flight.
Despite not being currently used, the cameras can be integrated with immigration controls, in order to facilitate the process. Some travelers already complete those requirements on a mobile phone rather than through paperwork or at a kiosk in the terminal. By doing a biometric scan, passengers could clear Global Entry on the plane and walk straight through customs.
Biometric trials have been conducted at JetBlue for passenger boarding at Boston and at Delta for SkyClub access at Washington-National Airport. The US government has expressed interest in digital immigration identification systems. At Miami Airport, the Mobile Passport is integrated into the Miami Airport app.
The camera-equipped IFE systems are mostly found in premium economy cabins of select American Airlines Boeing 777-200s, 777-300ERs, and Airbus A330-200s. In Singapore Airlines cabins, they are found in the business, premium economy, and economy cabins of the airline's Airbus A350-900s, Airbus A380s, Boeing 777-300ERs, and Boeing 787-10s.