Airbnb Under Fire For Disturbing Hidden Camera Incidents

Travelers staying in Airbnb rentals might want to think twice before traipsing around naked in somebody else’s rental property. according to The Atlantic. In fact, one might want to check the bathroom fixtures for little black dots that look out of place. 

And while the company’s rules allow owners to place cameras outdoors, in living rooms and in common areas, bathrooms and bedrooms are prohibited. 

Starting in early 2018, Airbnb added another layer of disclosure: If hosts indicate they have cameras anywhere on their property, guests receive a pop-up informing them where the cameras are located and where they are aimed. To book the property, the guests must click “agree,” indicating that they’re aware of the cameras and consent to being filmed. –The Atlantic

There have been super terrible examples of privacy violations by AirBnB hosts, e.g., people have found cameras hidden in alarm clocks in their bedrooms,” says Jeff Bigham – a Carnegie Mellon computer-science professor who found undisclosed cameras in his rental. “I feel like our experience is in some ways more insidious. If you find a truly hidden camera in your bedroom or bathroom, Airbnb will support you. If you find an undisclosed camera in the private living room, Airbnb will not support you.” 

After twice siding with the property owner, Bigham says Airbnb finally cooperated after a blog post he made on the incident went viral.

In January, Bigham discovered cameras in his rental that he says were never disclosed. After he reached out to the Trust & Safety team, representatives told him he and his family had in fact consented to the cameras because they were visibly displayed in photos on the listing. After Bigham’s blog post on the ordeal went viral, Airbnb apologized and refunded his money. –The Atlantic

“No one really seems to know what they’re doing,” said Bigham. “And it seems like it’s only going to get worse.”

Airbnb said in a statement: “We have apologized to Mr. Bigham and fully refunded him for his stay. We require hosts to clearly disclose any security cameras in writing on their listings and we have strict standards governing surveillance devices in listings. This host has been removed from our community.

In another incident from January, children’s camp director Max Vest discovered cameras in his Airbnb room which he first mistook for phone chargers. 

He quickly got dressed, grabbed his belongings, and pocketed the cameras’ memory cards as evidence. Then panic set in: It was almost midnight, and he was alone in the home of someone whose name he didn’t even know, apparently being recorded. What’s more, his host could have been watching as he discovered the cameras.

I didn’t know if I was being watched live,” Vest told me in January. “What I’ve found since is that [the cameras] record to a memory card, but they can also stream live. The host could’ve been watching. Anybody could have been watching.” (The company denied The Atlantic’s, and Vest’s, requests for Ralph’s full name and identity, citing its privacy policy.)

Vest was afraid of what might happen if Ralph saw him leave. “I know what he had [at] stake by being caught,” Vest said. But he managed to leave the apartment without incident, get in his car, and make two phone calls—one to his wife, and one to Airbnb’s safety team. –The Atlantic

Vest received a refund and spent the night in a hotel room, however he claims that Airbnb made several missteps during the entire process of renting – up to the point where he has retained an attorney and is considering filing a civil lawsuit under Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. More troublingly, the police gave Vest trouble for taking the camera’s memory card without the homeowner’s consent. 

Cameras have been found in international Airbnb rentals as well. 

Alfie Day told me he found a camera in his rental’s living room while he and his girlfriend were visiting his brother in Bulgaria. Day works in IT, so he performed an Nmap scan to learn more about the devices in the home. He discovered that the host had installed a type of camera that could be remotely controlled to pan, tilt, and zoom in on anything it sees. The expanded field of view meant that while the camera was in the living room, it could discreetly follow guests from room to room. The scan also revealed that the camera had a high-capacity storage system that lets users share very large files quickly across the same network.

Day credits Airbnb’s Trust & Safety customer service for responding quickly and carefully, but he still wonders what happened to the video footage. It could theoretically be stored on the device, saved to the host’s cloud account, sent to a shared network for other users to watch, or uploaded to any illicit site, living forever outside Airbnb’s control. –The Atlantic

In 2015, Airbnb settled a civil lawsuit brought by a German woman who discovered hidden cameras in her rental two years prior. She argued in her complaint that she now fears “images of her exist in electronic form and could make their way onto the Internet or some other medium.”

Meanwhile, Miami PD are investigating Vest’s case – however they have not formally brought criminal charges against the homeowner, Vest or Airbnb. 

“When something like this happens, they need to really be serious about the consequences,” said Vest. “Just removing a listing—it doesn’t really send a message.” 


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