Should we be searching for hidden spy cameras in Airbnbs and hotels?

After arriving at their Airbnb in Cork, Ireland, a family from New Zealand made an unsettling discovery: a hidden camera, livestreaming from the living room. Nealie Barker shares how they found the hidden camera and the owner's explanation.

Posted: Apr 6, 2019 9:50 PM
Updated: Apr 6, 2019 9:50 PM

Airbnbs have changed the way we vacation, offering accommodation that adds a whole new dimension to travel.

Sometimes that extra dimension is delightful -- a unique place to crash in a cool neighborhood, or the chance to experience life like a local.

But lately, there have been a few incidents where the extra dimension is downright creepy.

In the most recent, a family from New Zealand discovered a hidden camera livestreaming from a property they were renting in Cork, Ireland. That follows claims of several other secret camera discoveries, which were reported last month by The Atlantic magazine.

Of course, these are likely isolated incidents and Airbnb says it has taken action, investigated and apologized where appropriate. Airbnb insists negative experiences during stays are extremely rare.

"The safety and privacy of our community -- both online and offline -- is our priority," Airbnb said in a statement following the Ireland incident. "Airbnb policies strictly prohibit hidden cameras in listings and we take reports of any violations extremely seriously."

Nevertheless, after Andrew Barker from New Zealand used his professional IT security skills to detect the camera hidden in the house in Cork, his family advised other travelers to learn how to scan networks for covert devices.

Exercise in trust

"We think people need to realize that the travel market is largely unregulated and if you would take issue with being filmed, then you need to take all steps properly," Nealie Barker said.

But is it even possible to check for such spy devices without fully descending into paranoia?

Arguably, we shouldn't need to check at all. Any renting of accommodation, whether from a major hotel chain or from an individual, is an exercise in trust, without which it's hard not to just stay home.

"Obviously, this is happening in a tiny minority of the properties on the site, but it's never a bad idea to take a careful look around your Airbnb when you arrive, not just for hidden cameras, but also for safety items, like unobstructed exits and fire extinguishers," said Pauline Frommer, editorial director for the Frommer's travel brand.

"The key to remember with all Airbnb stays is that these are private properties, that are not subject to the same kinds of inspections a hotel would be," Frommer said.

Not that hotel guests are entirely immune from digital age privacy invasions. In South Korea last month, arrests were made after police said more than 1,600 people had been secretly filmed in motel rooms.

For those who want to follow the Barkers' advice, security experts point to varying levels of checks, from the cursory to the in-depth that could help identify hidden lenses.

First of all, checks should be made around each room for strange devices, the shine of camera lenses and tiny holes, according to tech websites such as lifehacker and Digital Trends.

They say this should include the back ends of books, mirrors, light bulbs, house plants, areas that would give the best field of view.

Apps and scanners

Flashlights, like the one on a smartphone, can be used to pick up reflections from camera lenses. Tech experts advise turning off all the lights and shining a flashlight around the area to search for a lens.

Any gadgets that look abnormal should be targeted: alarm clocks and smoke detectors are potential hiding places for cameras.

"Assuming the camera has some form of lens, you use a device that has a very bright light source and a viewfinder that allows you to scan for the reflections from the lens," Professor Alan Woodward from the Center for Cyber Security at the UK's Surrey University, told CNN.

Some cameras can operate in the dark and to do that they need an infrared source, he added.

"If that were the case you could (assuming it's dark) turn off all the lights and use your forward-facing phone camera which tends not to have an IR filter fitted and so may see any IR illumination, assuming it's there."

It's also possible to install apps on your phone that can scan for hidden cameras or buy a radio frequency scanner.

"If it does transmit RF, then you can again buy a standard bug detector that you sweep the room with to search for hidden sources of radio transmission," says Woodward. "There are some products out there that combine the optical and RF detection methods."

Internet cameras need a data connection to store or stream their footage, says tech company Fing, so cameras may be connected to your Airbnb host's network, the same Wi-Fi that you have been allowed to connect to -- as was the case for the Barker family in Cork.

Companies like Fing have devices that scan Wi-Fi networks and see all the other devices, both wired and wireless, connected.

If a webcam camera has no connection to the Internet it can't send its footage, so disconnecting the Internet would stop the streaming.

Stay relaxed

However, even if no cameras appear on a network scan, it doesn't necessarily mean there's no secret filming as some hosts provide a guest Wi-Fi that is separate from their personal Internet.

Anyone who does find anything suspicious should contact local police so they can investigate and notify Airbnb, which has pledged to investigate such matters and take action where necessary.

Sarah Schlicter, a senior editor of advice site SmarterTravel, says that despite the recent headlines, snooping incidents are rare.

She advises those concerned to make basic checks, but says travelers should be more worried about looking for bed bugs than electronic ones.

And with no way of knowing in advance whether any room -- hotel or Airbnb -- is being spied upon, travelers should hope for the best.

"I wouldn't let this be the deciding factor on where you choose to stay," she adds. "I also wouldn't let anxiety over this affect your ability to relax in your room and enjoy your vacation.

"If you're concerned, check your room when you arrive. If you do find a camera, report it to your hotel or vacation rental booking site and seek new accommodations. Otherwise, there's not much else you can do."

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