Editor’s comment: Who watches the watchers?

Inflight editor Alexander Preston summarises the latest happenings across IFEC and cabin technology.

At the beginning of February, Google quietly announced an upgrade to its Nest Secure home security and alarm system.

Owners of Nest Guard, the brains of Nest Secure, can now use Google Assistant to ask questions such as “Hey Google, do I need an umbrella today?”

“The Google Assistant on Nest Guard is an opt-in feature, and as the feature becomes available to our users, they’ll receive an email with instructions on how to enable the feature and turn on the microphone in the Nest app. Nest Guard does have one on-device microphone that is not enabled by default,” the company wrote in a blog post.

However, the revelation that Nest Secure features a microphone came as a surprise as it hadn’t been listed among the published device specs.

In the face of rising concerns, Google issued a mea culpa to the trade press, saying: “The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs. That was an error on our part.”

The statement added that “the microphone has never been on and is only activated when users specifically enable the option.”

A few days ago it was the turn of Singapore Airlines to explain the presence of a camera in its IFE monitor.

Replying to a twitter post from the eagle-eyed Vitaly Kamluk, director, Global Research & Analysis Team, APAC at Kaspersky Lab, the airline wrote:

Hi there, thank you for reaching out to us. We would like to share that some of our newer inflight entertainment systems provided by the original equipment manufacturers do have a camera embedded in the hardware. (1/2)

These cameras have been disabled on our aircraft, and there are no plans to develop any features using the cameras. Thank you. (2/2)

The aircraft with cameras embedded in the in-flight entertainment systems include SIA’s A350-900s (medium-haul, long-haul and ultra-long-range), A380s, Boeing 777-300ERs and 787-10s.

In all, there are 84 aircraft with cameras embedded in their IFE system.

A SIA statement to The Straits Times that: “The camera is permanently disabled and cannot be activated on board,” will offer a degree of reassurance, but at the same time its mere presence raises questions over privacy concerns, data collection and usage, at a time when airlines are keen to offer a personalised onboard service.


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