Jeffrey Bigham and his family were about a day into their holiday stay at an Airbnb when he noticed the white security camera that blended in with the corner where the wall met the ceiling. Then he found another camera.
As he wrote in a blog post about the experience, he was “shocked” thinking that it was “very likely that my 2-year-old ran in front of this camera naked,” since it probably has a field of view near the bathroom door. He did what many of us would likely do and unplugged the cameras.
Bigham’s tale is just one of many Airbnb nightmares to surface over the years, as the company has grown into a viable alternative to hotels around the world. The thing the normalization of Airbnb mutes is just how risky it can be to stay in a complete stranger’s house.
According to Bigham’s blog, he looked at the host’s Airbnb post and realised it did state that there were cameras “at the entrance.” But he did not believe that to be an accurate statement, since the cameras were inside the house.
One of the many photos of the house also showed one of the cameras. It’s in the top left of the photo Bigham posted on Twitter where he also shared his experience. As you can probably see—or, rather, not see—the white camera is easy to miss in the photo. As Bingham pointed out, it looks like a smoke detector.
check out this picture from an @Airbnb I recently stayed at in Seattle — notice anything concerning?
if you manage to spot it, that's great, because Airbnb considers this photo to be proper disclosure… 1/n pic.twitter.com/gj9XFcaZoe
— Jeff Bigham (@jeffbigham) January 15, 2019
Bigham wrote that he contacted Airbnb and told them about the camera. He claimed Airbnb said the photo above was a disclosure of the cameras.
Then things got weirder, according to Bigham’s post, which says Airbnb told his host he had inquired about the cameras. Bingham included a screen grab of a message the host sent him:
Indeed you did dismantle our security system After Airbnb rejected your clem [sic] what were you tryingto hide on New Year’s Eve
Bigham wrote that the host gave him a bad review, and he believes the host also sent someone to “snoop” on his family.
“Since posting this, I have heard from many people, both guests and hosts,” Bigham told Gizmodo in an email. “The issue of wifi cameras, privacy, etc., is deeply affecting Airbnb’s users, no one really seems to know what they’re doing, and it seems like it’s only going to get worse.”
Bigham told Gizmodo that since his blog brought attention to his experience, Airbnb had decided to refund his stay and told him that the company representatives he spoke with were confused or mistaken.
Airbnb did not respond to a Gizmodo request for comment on Bigham’s experience. However, the company shared a statement with Digital Trends: “Our community’s privacy and safety is our priority, and our original handling of this incident did not meet the high standards we set for ourselves.”
Digital Trends reports that Airbnb has removed the host from the platform. “We require hosts to clearly disclose any security cameras in writing on their listings and we have strict standards governing surveillance devices in listings,” Airbnb told Digital Trends.
The company also told the outlet that surveillance equipment and cameras are only permitted in Airbnb listings if they are visible and have been previously disclosed. Surveillance devices are also never allowed in private areas, like bedrooms and bathrooms, the company said. Airbnb also stated that photos of these devices in the listings are not proper disclosure.
Bingham updated his original blog post on Wednesday night to say that he had donated to the Electronic Frontier Foundation after Airbnb refunded his money. He also shared a comment someone wrote about this post; it reads: “I just assume that there will be camera constantly recording when I stay in airbnb, or anywhere really. They [sic] way I never have to worry about whether it exist or not. As recording technology becoming more and more advance, it’s less and less reasonable to expect privacy. I rather adapt my life to fit this new culture.”
Of course, we shouldn’t just accept creeping surveillance as that commenter depressingly suggests. But we should be aware that no matter how many good reviews a host has—they’re still a complete stranger. It’s becoming increasingly easier and cheeper for anyone to get surveillance equipment that can be hidden in a house.
If you’re staying in a Airbnb, check all the rooms. Look for weird-looking gadgets, like an alarm clock or a smoke detector, that could be masquerading as surveillance equipment.
And if you want to be especially cautious, you can buy an RF scanner that should be able to detect cameras. At the very least, check out the corners.