Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific has revealed it is monitoring passengers via onboard cameras, re-opening an uncomfortable debate over surveillance on airplanes.
Cathay confirmed it is collecting images of passengers while they’re on board, monitoring their usage of the in-flight entertainment system (IFE) and how they spend time during the flight.
The airline does not say whether images are captured via cameras fixed around the airplane or from embedded seat-back cameras.
Earlier in 2018, multiple airlines admitted that cameras were installed in their entertainment systems, sparking widespread privacy concerns. Airlines including Singapore Airlines, Emirates and American said they had no plans to activate the cameras.
Cathay Pacific has not yet responded to a CNN request to explain how the carrier will collect images of passengers. The Independent reported that the airline has said that the images were for “security” purposes, and IFE cameras were not in use on board its aircraft.
“We will retain your Personal Data for as long as is necessary,” reads the policy.
While CCTV surveillance is accepted by many as a reassuring security measure, others feel tracking passengers in the confines of an airplane cabin is a step too far.
Cathay Pacific has an uneven record when it comes to digital privacy. In October 2018, the airline reported a data breach that potentially impacted some nine million passengers.
British Airways also experienced a data breach in 2018 and was fined $230 million under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation rules.
Vitaly Kamuk, a cybersecurity expert who Tweeted about the discovery of a camera lens in a Singapore Airlines IFE system, told CNN Travel back in March 2019 that there was a risk that images collected by such a lens could fall into the wrong hands.
“The true risk comes from potential unauthorized access to these devices from powerful malicious attackers. As far as IFE is connected to the Internet, there is a possibility of remote hack and espionage if such devices can be activated in software,” he said.
Panasonic Avionics, which supplies some IFE systems for Cathay Pacific, has previously said fears of surveillance and privacy breach are “a bit of an overreaction.” The company says seat-back cameras will soon become an accepted part of flying, offering opportunities for seat-to-seat video conferencing, among other usages.
“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,” said David Bartlett, the company’s chief technology officer.