How many times have you sat a your favorite neighborhood restaurant, with family, friends, business associates, and enjoyed a meal and private conversation? Well, your conversation may not have been so private. Here’s why.
Normally, you wouldn’t think that Big-Brother would be present at a casual lunch, but you may want to rethink that one. The reason I’m posting this story is because of an interesting thing that happened to me, and my friend, as we enjoyed a lunch yesterday at a restaurant we frequent, often.
As we were seated, we noticed the restaurant now had electronic pads on every table. The waitress told us we were able to order drinks, appetizers and pay for our meal via the new electronic device. Ok, great. We thought nothing of it. After we finished our meal and lingered over long, private, conversations, that only close friends share, we tried to pay for our meals, via the electronic device. Well, it turned that the device had a bug which inadvertently charged for “video games” which were not played. So, not wanting to pay for services not rendered, or welcomed, we alerted the waitress as to the problems. And while we were quite annoyed at the bogus charges automatically put on the bill, that wasn’t the bigger problem. With further investigation, it turns out that these seemingly innocuous machines could be listening to your conversations, without your knowledge. Brings up a truckload of questions and red flags, don’t you think?
With a little research, this came up. It also turns out my friend and I were not the first to be wary of this restaurant table technology. Restaurants can arm these things with cameras and microphones, and watch/listen to you while you dine.
CBS/Sacramento: SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — You can order, pay your bill and even play games on tablets some restaurants now have at the table. But one of our viewers, Howard Fergarsky noticed a camera on a tablet and wanted to know if the restaurant is watching him.
“Is this a camera or something” our undercover producer asked a Chili’s server. “Oh no, it’s not,” she answered. Despite what the Chili’s server is telling our producer, there is a camera on the restaurant’s tablet on the table.
“I found the camera. Why is it there?” Fergarsky asked. “It doesn’t need to be there.”
He and friend, Cheryl Keith are afraid restaurants like Chili’s, Red Robin and Applebee’s which now have tablets for ordering, paying for food, even entertaining your kids with games could also be spying on us, watching and eavesdropping on our conversations or listening to what we’re saying about their servers or food.
“It concerns me that we’re not seeing the hidden risks,” said Keith.
Pam Dixon from the World Privacy Forum worries if cameras and microphones are on the tablets, there’s always a possibility they can be watching you.
“The tablet itself is not a bad thing,” she said. “It’s what they’re doing with that information…They may allow access to that information for marketing and things like that, and that’s what you don’t want to see.”
When we asked each restaurant about their tablet, each said their technology has no microphone and cameras will not be used to spy on us.
Red Robin says the camera function is not being used right now and that, “no one can listen to or watch anyone from the tablet.”
A spokesperson for Ziosk, the technology Chili’s uses says on its tablet, “the camera does not save information and does not share any information without the permission of the user.”
We noticed on the Chili’s device, a green light comes on, and you can use it to scan coupons. The restaurant says it may one day allow you to take selfies. You can already take selfies at Applebee’s which says only “the guest controls the still camera”.
“They wouldn’t build it, if it wasn’t being used that way,” said Fergarsky.
Fergarsky and Keith don’t want to take any chances and plan to turn any tablet on their table upside down.
“It’s just scary, too much,” said Keith.
Applebee’s admits it stores the selfies customers take, but according to Kevin Mortesen from the maker of Applebee’s tablet, they “delete them on a regular basis, currently monthly, but that time frame is currently being evaluated.”
Ziosk, the same company that makes Chili’s and Red Robin’s technology says it’s working on concepts for 15 of the top 50 restaurant chains, but could not comment further.
Unauthorized charges to your bill is the smaller issue. Yeah, it’s a scam. But the larger privacy invasion raise lots of more serious questions. Many states have laws regarding monitoring conversation with/without notifying the party. What about warrantless monitoring? What if the technology picks up discussion of criminal activity, abuse, conspiracy to commit a crime? Is the restaurant bound/obligated to notify the FBI/police? What if you are cracking wise and Big Brother wants to construe your innocent comments as something more? The next time you meet with business associates for lunch to discuss a confidential deal, or a friend to talk about deeply personal issues that you would only confined in a friend, or you lover/mistress, just make sure you aren’t patronizing restaurants that use at the table technology. You just don’t know who could be listening/watching.