Wired - Southeast Airlines said it plans to install digital video cameras throughout the cabins of its planes to record the faces and activities of its passengers at all times, as a precaution against terrorism and other safety threats.
In addition, the charter airline, based in Largo, Florida, will store the digitized video for up to 10 years. And it may use face recognition software to match faces to names and personal records, the airline said.
"One of the strong capabilities of the system is for the corporate office to be able to monitor what is going on at all times," said Scott Bacon, Southeast's vice president of planning. "From a security standpoint, this provides a great advantage to assure that there is a safe environment at all times."
The Federal Aviation Administration and the newly created Homeland Security Department do not require airlines to take such security measures. But Southeast said it's just a matter of time before they do, and it will be prepared.
While other airlines have not announced similar plans, privacy and consumer advocates are alarmed by the tiny airline. They said the move is a big invasion of privacy and see no reason why an airline needs to retain video.
"What's the point of keeping track of everyone when nothing happens on the flight?" said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Tien said the airlines and law enforcement would be able to track private, personal information. Not only would they keep a record of every recreational or business trip, they could record conversations between spouses and capture every book title or magazine a passenger reads.
The video system is manufactured by SkyWay Communications, based in Clearwater, Florida. The company installs the cameras and stores the information for its customers.
"We can install up to 16 cameras that can be located throughout the plane and could be covert or overt," said David Huy, SkyWay vice president of sales and marketing. "It enables us to monitor the activity in the aircraft in real time. We feel this will be very important. The federal government is looking at mandating some camera security and surveillance."
Huy said cameras wouldn't be installed in the restrooms.
He conceded the system would not prevent determined terrorists from sabotaging a plane, as the terrorists of the Sept. 11 attacks did. The purpose is to help law enforcement identify criminals and keep track of their whereabouts. Pilots could check the cabin before opening the cockpit door during a flight. And, airlines could use the records to defend themselves in lawsuits over situations like air rage.
The Department for Homeland Security hasn't yet mandated the use of video cameras in flights.
"These are just a number of technologies out there that we are considering in reference to security," said Michelle Petrovich, a spokeswoman for the department's science and technology bureau. "We haven't made a decision or awarded a contract yet."
Other airlines did not respond to queries about plans to use cameras. American Airlines declined to comment. The Air Transport Association, an airline industry trade group, did not respond to a call.
Privacy advocates say systems that allow constant surveillance will have limited ability to prevent crime. Instead, they likely will only raise people's anxiety.
Tien said he recently read a book by the U.S. government titled Who Becomes a Terrorist?
"It's creepy that they would know what it is I am reading," Tien said. "I could see what it would look like on a screen. I don't think I should have to feel funny about things like that."