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In Flight Wi-Fi: Now With More Federal Surveillance!

By William Peacock, Esq. on April 09, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There is a good reason why I've never used in flight Wi-Fi services: I'm cheap. Besides, I can live without the Internet for an hour or three.

But, if you needed another reason, how about this: Gogo and Panasonic Avionics' eXConnect may have added surveillance back doors for federal law enforcement agencies to monitor your Internet traffic. Together, the two companies manage Wi-Fi for Delta, American Airlines, United, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America, US Airways and others.

The program was made possible by the Federal Communications Commission, which has used the possibility of adding rules and restrictions to in-flight Wi-Fi as a gun to the head of the two companies, reports Wired.

Sending confidential client files during that flight? Maybe not.

CALEA and More

Internet service providers, whether terrestrial or aerial, are required to comply with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, a law that requires companies to provide information on all numbers and accounts with which a target has communicated. This bare minimum requirement basically means that if the government has a suspect in mind, they can get that person's records.

But Gogo and Panasonic may have taken things a step further. Documents from both companies indicate that they added additional surveillance features as a means of staving off proposed rules by the FCC. Since then, the companies have made conflicting statements to various news outlets, including a statement to Wired that the only extra feature added was a CAPTCHA (the annoying scrambled letters or numbers prompt that websites use to keep bots away) to prevent outside access to the Gogo network.

As Wired notes, that makes little sense -- you can only access Gogo from inside a plane, and only when the plane is above a certain elevation. Outside access is already impossible.

Gogo's terms of service, by the way, indicate that it may be required "to record some or all of your communications," and that it may be required to disclose those communications to law enforcement.

Does This Change Your Behavior?

At this point, it seems like there is no truly private way to go online. Using a VPN is a good start, but a motivated NSA analyst can get past that as well. But, while we've heard of terrestrial ISPs allowing the NSA to tap into their data, those activities have allegedly since ceased.

If you had a strong suspicion that the federal government was watching and tracking your in-flight communications, would that make you shy away from using in-flight Wi-Fi? Or do you not care at this point? Or, are you frugal like me?

Tweet us your thoughts @FindLawLP.

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