The spy who hired me? Spotlight on hidden cameras in Airbnbs

Do you find reports of spy cameras found in vacation rentals disturbing? Try these tips for spotting hidden cameras and ease your worries.

Advances in technology have made travel faster, cheaper and easier for many of us. We can book flights through smartphone apps, check in online, easily overcome language barriers and avoid getting lost. Finding a place to stay has never been easier, as technology has opened up a whole new world of travel, both for those on a budget and for families and couples looking for a stay in a more luxurious setting.

But technology also brings new risks, including to our privacy. In recent years, some travelers have seen their dream vacations ruined by a particularly frightening risk to their privacy: hidden cameras in rental properties, which are often booked through platforms such as Airbnb.

Certainly, it is not a question of frightening or feeding paranoia, far from it. You are even more likely to encounter other travel-related cyber threats, such as Airbnb themed scams Or other common risks to watch out for when traveling. But ours is also a time when all sorts of surveillance gadgets are becoming more affordable; moreover, these gadgets are often tiny and/or designed to look like everyday objects – they’re meant to be hard to spot, after all.

It is therefore understandable that many people fear that they will possibly be watched by the camera in their private moments. So much so that the risk is always in the spotlight an Airbnb guest uses social media to share their own horror stories of encountering spycams in the bedroom or bathroom of their foster home.

Look at me, look at us?

Real (and known) cases involving spy cameras don’t seem particularly common, but they do happen occasionally. Here are some examples from the past few years:

  • In 2017, internet activist Jason Scott tweeted a photo of an internet-connected spy camera hidden inside a burglar alarm motion sensor, which was discovered in an unnamed Airbnb location by a colleague.
  • In 2018, a Glasgow traveler and his girlfriend found a hidden camera inside a digital alarm clock pointed at the property’s bed in an open-plan room. He alerted police in Toronto, where the property was located, after realizing the host owned six other properties.
  • In 2019, a New Zealand IT Security Professional found a live feed from a hidden camera after scanning his Airbnb’s Wi-Fi network at a property in Cork, Ireland. The host was initially exonerated by the website, until the news went viral.
  • In 2022, an Airbnb customer discovered a hidden camera located in the property’s bathroom after he heard a click when getting out of the shower with his girlfriend. The device was apparently configured to take photos and transmit them to the user’s device when it detected movement in the room.
  • Admittedly, other types of accommodation are not completely risk-free either, as evidenced by the case of South Korea where 1,600 people were secretly recorded in motel rooms and the footage was streamed live online for paying customers.

Under a watchful eye?

A study 2019 by real estate services firm IPX1301 found that out of 2,000 Airbnb U.S. customers, the vast majority (83%) trusted their host. So far, so good. But more than half (58%) also said they were concerned about the prospect of hidden cameras in the property. Additionally, 11% of respondents said they had discovered a hidden camera in their Airbnb.

Now, the number may be a far cry from the actual number of cases involving spy camera discoveries in vacation rentals. Indeed, far from all worries (and reports) regarding such invasions of privacy appear to have been substantiated.

To make matters even more complex, some vacation home owners are venting their frustrations about their guests on social media, including posting legitimate (i.e. fully disclosed) security camera footage, as well only the full names of the guests. Back in 2019, Facebook closed one of these groups with thousands of members.

What does Airbnb say?

As the market leader in vacation rentals, Airbnb has took much of the flak for spy camera incidents. There have also been reports that the company has been slow to take customer complaints seriously.

Now, Airbnb policy on the subject is quite unequivocal. Security cameras and noise monitoring devices are permitted “as long as they are clearly disclosed in the listing description and do not invade the privacy of others.”

The presence of cameras or other recording devices must be disclosed in the property listing (two examples from random Airbnb listings)

In other words, there is a clear prohibition of:

  • “Hidden and Undisclosed Devices” which are intended to monitor common areas. Any such device must be installed “conspicuously and disclosed in the listing description”.
  • Devices located in or monitoring private spaces such as bedrooms, bathrooms and sleeping areas such as sofa beds. “Disconnected devices are allowed as long as they are turned off and proactively disclosed to customers.”

With over seven million registrations worldwide, it is extremely difficult for the company to police these rules. This means customers may want to be proactive and take matters into their own hands. Indeed, given how frightening the discovery of spy cameras can be, why not arm yourself with the knowledge of how to avoid this scenario – or at least dispel any lingering doubts?

How to find a hidden spy camera

If there’s even a slim chance your Airbnb host is secretly spying on you, it’s time to get serious about protecting your privacy. Channel your inner James Bond with the following tips for finding a hidden spy camera:

  • Physically check the room: Sometimes the old ways are the best. Look for hidden cameras in plain sight, perhaps in clocks, smoke detectors, speakers, or even light bulbs. If there are any suspicious devices pointed at beds or showers, they may merit further investigation.
  • Use a flashlight: Camera lenses are made of glass, which means they are reflective. So turn off the lights and turn on a flashlight around the property to check if there is anything hiding in an appliance or piece of furniture.
  • Check night vision lights: Turning the lights off or on will also help you spot any red or green LEDs that may light up on night vision cameras. Be slow and methodical when moving around the property as they can be quite small.
  • Use an app: Researchers have been working on a mobile app which uses phones’ time-of-flight (ToF) sensor to find spy cameras hidden in everyday objects. There are also apps and other software, including security apps, that can scan networks not only for weaknesses, but also help you find devices connected to them. In a modern property, there may be a number of smart home devices, however, it is not always straightforward to distinguish harmless from suspicious devices. It is also possible that some hosts are using another network to spy on their guests. Do not scan your neighbours’ Wi-Fi networks.
  • Detect RF signals: A final telltale sign of a hidden camera is monitoring radio frequencies (RF) that the camera may be using to connect to a hidden network. There are devices available to search for this activity, although they can be quite expensive. Another option is to make an outgoing call to a family member or friend and walk around the property. A hidden camera may be interfering with your phone signal, so stop and investigate.

Depending on what you found (or didn’t find), it’s up to you to decide what to do next. Call the police, notify Airbnb, move out, and request a refund. Or relax and continue your stay safe in the knowledge that there is nothing to worry about.

About Timothy Cheatham

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