Concerned about reports of spy cameras found in vacation rentals? Try these hidden camera detection tips and have fun.
Advances in technology have made travel faster, cheaper and more convenient for many of us. We can book flights through smartphone apps, check in online, easily overcome language barriers and not get lost. Finding a place to stay has also never been easier as technology has opened up a whole new world of travel for those on a budget as well as families and couples looking for a more luxurious stay.
But technology also brings with it new risks, particularly when it comes to our privacy. In recent years, some travelers’ dream vacations have been marred by one particularly creepy privacy risk: hidden cameras in rental properties, often booked through platforms like Airbnb.
Of course, this is not intended to scare or fuel paranoia – far from it. You’re still more likely to encounter other travel-related cyber threats, such as Airbnb-themed scams or other common risks to be aware of while traveling. But now is also a time when all kinds of surveillance gadgets are becoming more affordable; what’s more, these gadgets are often tiny and/or designed to look like everyday objects – after all, they’re hard to spot.
So, it’s understandable that many people worry about being watched on camera in their private moments. So much so that the risk comes into focus every time an Airbnb guest takes to social media to share their own horror stories of coming across spy cameras in their bedroom or bathroom.
Are you watching me, are you watching us?
Real (and famous) cases involving spy cameras don’t seem very common, but they do happen. Here are some examples from the past few years:
- In 2017 internet activist Jason Scott wrote on Twitter image of an internet-connected spy camera hidden in a security alarm motion detector that was discovered at an unnamed Airbnb location by a colleague.
- In 2018, a traveler from Glasgow and his girlfriend found a hidden camera inside a digital alarm clock aimed at the property’s bed in an open-plan room. He notified police in Toronto, where the property was located, after realizing the owner had six other properties.
- In 2019, a IT security specialist in New Zealand found a live feed from a hidden camera after scanning the Wi-Fi network of his Airbnb property in Cork, Ireland. The website initially exonerated the host until the news went viral.
- In 2022, an Airbnb customer a hidden camera was discovered in the bathroom after he heard a click as he got 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 detects movement in the room.
- True, other types of housing are also not completely safe, as evidenced by the case in South Korea, where 1,600 people were secretly booked into motel rooms and the video was streamed online for paying customers.
Under a watchful eye?
A 2019 study by real estate firm IPX1301 found that of 2,000 US Airbnb customers, the vast majority (83%) trust their hosts. Everything is going fine. But more than half (58%) also said they were worried about the prospect of hidden cameras in property. In addition, as many as 11% of respondents said they had discovered a hidden camera in their Airbnb.
Now, this figure may be a far cry from the actual number of spy camera detections in vacation rentals. Indeed, not all concerns (and reports) about such invasions of privacy appear to be justified.
To make things even more complicated, some vacation rental owners are taking their frustrations out on their guests on social media, including by posting footage from legitimate (ie, fully disclosed) security cameras along with the guests’ full names. In 2019, Facebook shut down one such group with thousands of members.
What does Airbnb say?
As a leader in the vacation rental market, Airbnb has received a lot of criticism over spy camera incidents. There were also reports that the firm was slow to take customer complaints seriously.
check out this image by an @Airbnb I recently stayed in Seattle – noticed anything of concern?
if you manage to spot it, that’s great because Airbnb considers this photo proper disclosure… 1/n pic.twitter.com/gj9XFcaZoe
— Jeffrey P. Boo!ham 👻 🎃🍁🥧 (@jeffbigham) January 15, 2019
Now, Airbnb’s policy on this matter is quite clear. Security cameras and noise monitoring devices are allowed “as long as they are clearly stated in the listing description and do not invade another person’s privacy.”
In other words, there is a clear prohibition on:
- “Hidden and Undisclosed Devices” which are installed to monitor public spaces. Any such device must be installed “in a visible manner and disclosed in the listing description.”
- Devices located in or monitored by private premises as bedrooms, bathrooms and bedrooms as sofa beds. “Unplugged devices are permitted as long as they are turned off and notified to guests in advance.”
With more than seven million ads posted worldwide, it is extremely difficult for companies to comply with these regulations. This means that guests may want to be proactive and take matters into their own hands. Indeed, given how scary spy camera detection can be, why not arm yourself with the knowledge of how to avoid this scenario – or at least dispel any doubts?
How to find a hidden spy camera
If there’s even the slightest possibility that your Airbnb host might be secretly spying on you, it’s time to get serious about protecting your privacy. Channel your inner James Bond with these tips for finding a hidden spy camera:
- Physically check the room: Sometimes the old ways are the best. Look for cameras hiding in plain sight, such as clocks, smoke detectors, speakers, or even light bulbs. If there are any suspicious-looking devices targeting beds or showers, they should be investigated further.
- Use a flashlight: Camera lenses are made of glass, that is, they reflect. So turn off the lights and shine a flashlight around the house to check if something is hiding in an appliance or piece of furniture.
- Check for night vision lamps: Turning off or dimming the lights will also help you see the red or green indicator LEDs that may light up on night vision cameras. Be slow and methodical when moving through the area as they can be quite small.
- Use the app: Researchers have been working on a mobile app that uses a phone’s time-of-flight (ToF) sensor to find spy cameras hidden in everyday objects. There are also apps and other software, including security programs, that can not only scan networks for vulnerabilities, but also help you find connected devices. However, there can be quite a number of smart home devices in a modern home, so distinguishing the benign devices from the suspicious ones may not always be a simple proposition. It is also possible that some hosts may use another network to spy on their guests. Don’t scan your neighbors’ Wi-Fi networks.
- Detection of radio frequency signals: The final control feature of a hidden camera is to monitor the radio frequencies (RF) that the camera may use to connect to a hidden network. There are devices available to scan this activity, although they can be quite expensive. An alternative option is to make an outgoing call to a family member or friend and take a walk around the property. A hidden camera may interfere with your phone signal, so stop and investigate.
Depending on what you find (or don’t find), you decide what to do next. Call the police, notify Airbnb, move out and demand a refund. Or relax and continue to stay safe, knowing you have nothing to worry about.