Whether you’re dozing off under the covers at home or in a hotel, you’re likely not too worried about your privacy—and for good reason. You can safely assume that your most intimate and personal moments are safe when you’re at home, away from the prying eyes of the public.
But what about a place you’ve rented on Airbnb or HomeAway, or a home you’re dog sitting in on Rover?
Each night, more than 2 million people stay in Airbnb accommodations. But these days, small, hidden, and easy-to-install surveillance equipment presents a new risk to guests who use home sharing services.
And we’re going to go ahead and assume you wouldn’t feel comfortable knowing that someone could spy on you while you undressed, slept, or even had more intimate moments.
It Sees You When You’re Sleeping…
…it knows when you’re awake (and what you’re up to).
In November 2017, Jason Scott’s colleague noticed a motion detector in the bedroom of his Airbnb. Sensing the device was out of place, Scott’s colleague pulled the device from the wall and discovered it was actually an IP camera streaming its feed elsewhere via the internet.
Scott’s colleague left the Airbnb, reported the host (who was suspended), and received a refund from Airbnb.
In Florida late last year, a vacationing Indiana couple rented an Airbnb from Wayne Natt, a host who, according to Fox 13, had used the service for more than two years and had more than 40 reviews on his profile. Yet during their stay, the couple discovered a camera disguised as a smoke detector aimed at their bed, which Natt said was used to record sex parties he hosted when not hosting an Airbnb guest.
The couple being spied upon had not been a part of those parties, nor had they consented to being recorded. Natt was later arrested and charged with video voyeurism and banned from Airbnb for violating its electronic surveillance device policy.
Another case two years ago details a couple discovering a camera hidden in a basket and aimed at their bed in their Airbnb rental. They then found additional cameras in both the kitchen and living room – cameras which had not been mentioned prior to booking the Airbnb.
In this case, too, Airbnb refunded the guests and continued to provide support to them.
So, surely this isn’t okay… right?
Your Expectation of Privacy in an Airbnb
Booking a hotel, Airbnb, or crashing on a friend’s couch entitles you to a certain expectation of privacy.
“Even if an owner lives in his home, he cannot record guests in the bathroom or in a guest bedroom,” says Charles Lee Mudd Jr., an attorney who specializes in the internet, technology, and privacy. “So if one allows guests to use rooms that have a presumption of privacy, this privacy should exclude the surreptitious recording – audio or video – of guests.”
Of course, not all hosts abide by this common sense philosophy due to security concerns, ignorance of laws and policies – or for more nefarious purposes, as we’ve seen above.
Self-Policing Communities Through Reviews
Airbnb, HomeAway, Rover, and other similar services utilize community review systems which allow guests to rate and review their entire home sharing experience. Was the home clean? Was the host cordial? Was free wifi provided?
Were there hidden cameras in the bathroom?
Positive reviews aren’t a guarantee the host is an upstanding citizen—they may have simply continued to get away with their unethical spying. A host doesn’t need a lair fit for a supervillain in order to do evil – they just need a few bucks and an Amazon account to buy a camera disguised as a smoke detector.
But even if you assume other guests wouldn’t want hidden cameras in their Airbnb – and would raise the flag if they found them – the issue is actually finding them. Where are these devices? How does an Average Joe know where to look?
You Don’t Need Batman’s Skills to Identify Hidden Spy Devices
Put away your utility belt (and grab your smartphone).
“Modern spy equipment is small and can be hidden almost anywhere, making it very difficult to find, even by trained professionals,” says Jack Plaxe, founder and managing director of Louisville, KY-based Security Consulting Alliance.
There are plenty of places and methods to hide surveillance devices, too.
“Cameras can be placed in alarm clocks, power adapters, light bulbs, smoke detectors, photo frames, stuffed animals, and mirrors. Most cameras are wireless, battery powered, and require no tech skills to install,” warns Justin Lavelle, Chief Communications Officer of BeenVerified.
Considering how easily such devices are hidden, it can be an uphill struggle trying to figure out if you’re being spied on. Some tips from Lavelle:
- Look for wires in unexpected places or wires that don’t seem to go anywhere (you’ll still occasionally find these though most new models are wireless).
- Check for lights where they don’t belong – this can easily be done by turning off the lights and looking around the room.
- Listen for a soft click or buzz of a motion-sensitive camera when you walk by.
- Check for small holes in walls or other places (it only takes a pinhole for a camera lens to see into a room).
- Check out camera-detecting apps for your smartphone such as Glint Finder and Spy Hidden Camera Detector. If you do find surveillance, you can easily turn it off or cover it for your own protection.
- If you’re really concerned about surveillance, you can also purchase a professional-quality hidden camera detector for about $100.
You’ve Been Spied Upon—Now What?
Though uncovering a hidden device can be incredibly jolting, you’re not at the mercy of the creep who installed it. Properly documenting your findings and contacting the authorities will nullify at least some of the sting of having your privacy invaded – and likely get you your money back. A few steps:
1. Compile Evidence
Photograph each hidden device and where you found it, as well as anything else out of the ordinary (why does a teddy bear have wires coming from it?).
“It’s always a smart idea in any rental situation to take before and after photos as well,” says Lavelle.
Doing so will not only help you in the event you discover any hidden devices, but will also protect you against false claims of destruction of property or policy violations – the same as when you’re signing a lease to rent an apartment.
2. Contact the Authorities
Contacting the police and the home sharing service you rented through will likely be the start of an investigation into your host – and any potential violations of the law or the service’s policies.
Airbnb promises to “take privacy issues extremely seriously and [has] a zero-tolerance policy against this behavior,” by cooperating with authorities and banning hosts found to be in violation of its surveillance policy.
Obviously, you may also be refunded the cost of the rental if Airbnb determines the host was spying on you in violation of its policies.
3. Court is Now in Session
You may also be entitled to some sort of legal recourse. According to Mudd, there exists the possibility of civil claims against the owner for privacy torts, “intrusion upon seclusion,” and if the host is truly creepy and publicized any recorded footage, for public disclosure of private act.
Can You Still Feel Safe When Home Sharing?
Though the possibility exists for an unscrupulous host to breach your privacy, the likelihood of one doing so is slim.
“Most hosts are probably honest people simply interested in making some extra money,” says Plaxe.
Home sharing creates interesting and unique experiences for guests and hosts alike. For the most part, these experiences are positive and happen without a hitch, but you can help guarantee you’ll enjoy your trip by being vigilant both before and during your stay.