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Restaurant Patrons Are Worried About Being Spied on Through iPads

Some diners at chain restaurants are developing conspiracy theories after noticing that ordering tablets are equipped with cameras. Is our waiter listening to us complain about our chicken tenders?
Photo via Flickr user atmtx

Since 2011, tablet service has shifted from being a scarce novelty to a pretty generally accepted implementation of tech in place of traditional service. In particular, it has become increasingly commonplace to encounter an iPad (or other tablet) ordering systems in the kind of restaurants that you eat at when hanging out with your aunt's family in suburban Pennsylvania—Chili's, Applebee's, and Red Robin have all adopted it en masse. A couple of swipes and clicks, and your order of mozzarella sticks or raspberry margaritas is swiftly brought to your table.


In the case of Chili's, the use of tablets has actually bolstered the sales of items such as desserts (nearly 20 percent) and coffee, as well as resulted in higher tips for servers—who, to reiterate, are still present to take orders and serve drinks—due to tip percentage recommendations that mitigate the risk of bad math. Additionally, about half of diners use the pad to pay to bypass having to flag down their server for the check. Win-win, right?

But, as with all new(ish) technology, there continue to be skeptics. Some are worried that iPads will replace waiters altogether, as robot takeover dawns; others, it seems, are concerned that they're being spied on.

As you may have noticed, most digital devices in 2014—especially if they have a touchscreen—are equipped with a camera, including tablets. This detail seems to be news to CBS Sacramento, who recently launched an undercover investigation at Chili's to determine whether or not the dot on their table tablet that appeared to be a camera was, in fact, a camera.

In a clip, customer Howard Fergarsky shakes his head in paranoid distrust while recalling to reporter Kurtis Ming how he noticed a camera on his table's tablet at Chili's, which his waitress—ever so suspiciously—assured him was not being used to eavesdrop on his personal conversations about the breading of his chicken tenders, or how annoying his neighbor's lawnmower is, or whatever else people talk about while dining at Chili's. Fergarsky was not convinced, which is why he initially approached the local news channel with his conspiracy theory.


"I found the camera. Why is it there?" Fergarsky asks, failing to consider that maybe it came on an existing tablet that was modified to be used for restaurant service. "It doesn't need to be there."

"It's just scary, too much," his friend and dining companion, Cheryl Keith, also tells reporters in the clip.

Their paranoia remains despite insistence from all three chains that widely use tablets—Red Robin, Applebee's, and Chili's—that the camera function is not recording anything or broadcasting their inane lunch conversations and casual complaints about the dryness of their Mushroom Swiss Burgers to an unseen audience of market researchers hidden behind a nearby curtain.

At Applebee's, diners can take selfies using the camera, but the restaurant insists that it is turned on and off only through the control of guests, and the selfies stored on each tablet are deleted on a regular basis.

Fergarsky and Keith tell reporters that they aren't willing to take any chances, and will be inverting their tablets to be face-down on the table every time they dine at one of the aforementioned establishments. Their conversations might still be recorded and analyzed for , but at least they will still own rights to their own faces, which are surely at risk of being sold by Chili's for the big bucks.

Unfortunately, if Fergasky and Keith plan to continue dining at major restaurant chains, they may soon have to don masks—heavy makeup and fake facial hair could also work—and speak through voice changers. Ziosk, the company that produces tablet technology for Chili's and Red Robin's, is currently in the process of developing projects for 15 of the 50 biggest chains.

As for the little front-facing camera on your home laptop—well, that can actually be accessed by creepy hackers, or the NSA. So if you're worried about any of your bedroom shenanigans being seen by your stalker from high school or a government official eating a sandwich at his desk, just cover it with a little piece of duct tape. Problem solved.