In 2017, a young couple traveling Europe with their 10-month-old in tow let themselves in to a charming Parisian apartment booked through Airbnb. The smell hit them first. The curtains and blinds were covered in mildew. They called Airbnb and vacated the flat.
Suddenly without accommodations, they got back on Airbnb. They arrived at the second apartment to find the bed broken. The showerhead, too. Uncleared garbage. Exposed light bulbs. Once their off-the-rails vacation came to an end, Asher and Lyric Fergusson were left with a big question: Is Airbnb safe?
The question led them to research and analyze over 1,000 Airbnb horror stories. They found “unsafe conditions” — a category that includes bug infestations, hostile hosts, and hidden cameras — among the most common of Airbnb horrors.
While not as immediately obvious as bugs and mold, or as immediately threatening as a bad host, hidden cameras represent a real concern for travelers who enjoy the unique experiences of an Airbnb stay. Media reports chronicle flagrant abuses of guest privacy by Airbnb hosts, caught hiding cameras in fire detectors and light bulbs. The rise of smart home technology, which provides safety and convenience for Airbnb guests, while unavoidably chipping away at privacy, exacerbates the issue.
Airbnb’s stance on surveillance
Airbnb’s code of conduct for safe hosting includes two rules for surveillance.
- Recording devices aren’t allowed in private areas (like bedrooms and bathrooms)
- Hosts must disclose all surveillance devices in their house rules. (Even devices that won’t be turned on during a guest’s stay.)
Beyond this, Airbnb holds both hosts and guests to “all applicable federal, state, and local laws” for surveillance and privacy. (Guests are forbidden from recording their hosts or third-party guests.)
But in most of the world such laws are nonexistent or lax. In the U.S., there are no federal laws against video surveillance — not in public, not at work, not at home. There are, however, state laws. Airbnb’s two simple rules — that devices are disclosed and kept out of private zones — reiterate the strongest state laws against surveillance.
What are “private spaces”?
The rule that hosts disclose surveillance devices and indicate whether active recording is taking place is simple enough. The second rule, which prohibits surveillance devices with sight of “certain private spaces” is more hazy.
Private spaces are anywhere a person is likely to undress: bedrooms, bathrooms, changing rooms, hotel rooms. Since an Airbnb is the modern equivalent of a hotel room, one could make the case that surveillance devices shouldn’t be present anywhere in an Airbnb rental, except maybe at the front door.
How to spot hidden cameras in an Airbnb
Scouting for security cameras in an Airbnb makes for a quick game of spy before unpacking.
- Turn off all the lights and shine a flashlight around. Camera lenses will glint.
- Download an app like Glint Finder, which operates on the same basic flashlight principle.
- Examine electronics that look “off” with incongruent cords or parts.
- Use a hidden camera/mic detector. At least one new bug detector is marketed specifically for use in Airbnbs.
Besides using your phone to download a camera-detecting app, you can also put its most basic functionality to work to track down bugs. “When you settle into an Airbnb, make a phone call to someone you know,” suggests Shayne Sherman of TechLoris. “Walk around the room… noticeable interference could be a sign of surveillance. Hidden cameras typically emit a radio frequency which interferes with calls made via cell phone.”
Chelsea Brown of Digital Mom Talk has another suggestion. “Count the number of devices you see in the home that are smart and the number of WiFi devices or IP addresses you see on the network. If they don’t add up, then you’re probably dealing with a hidden camera.” As for locating it — get out the old flashlight.
What to do if you find a hidden camera
If you find an inappropriately placed or undisclosed recording device in your Airbnb, you have recourse. First off, you’re eligible for a full refund. Next, you can flag both the host and the listing and report the situation.
The Fergussons have found that it’s all too easy for bad hosts to prey on further guests by simply signing up under a new user name. Until Airbnb ups its abilities to block offending hosts, there’s no way to prevent such shady workarounds. But you do have the recourse of your voice. We’ll be the first to tell you of the importance of writing a review.