Special Report: Who’s watching you while at an Airbnb?

Special Reports
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Special Report: Who’s watching you while at an Airbnb? (Source MGN Online)

For many people, going on vacation and staying at a short-term rental means letting go of any worry.

But the last thing on someone’s mind is being watched through hidden cameras.

For Ricardo Loeza and his family, its finally time to feel the sand in between their toes after driving nearly 800 miles from Mexico City to South Padre Island.

“The trip was rather easy, [but I’m] very tired,” Loeza said.

His family has planned staying the entire Easter week holiday on the island and at a hotel.

“I never stay at an Airbnb, I prefer staying at a hotel because I am guaranteed that if I have any problems, they are fixed,” Loeza said.

Not everyone is like the Loeza family. According to Airbnb’s website, millions of people use the short-term rental service which has grown in popularity since it was founded in 2008.

Airbnb is part of what’s known as the sharing economy, where an online user sell or provides a service through an online platform.

In order to use Airbnb, a person that owns a property such as a condo on the beach or has a spare room in their home, can create a listing for the entire property or the spare room, making it available for people to reserve it online, similar to a hotel reservation.

With having strangers on their property, some short-term rental owners might want to add video surveillance to see who comes in and out of their property.

“There could be some legitimate reasons why they’re using security cameras,” said Mahmoud Quweider, a computer science professor at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley. “But of course people also use it for evil.”

Quweider says there is a growing number of video surveillance devices available that could target people’s privacy.

Most recently, a family from New Zealand was staying at an Airbnb in Ireland, when Andrew Barker and his wife Nealie noticed something different about the smoke detector. Nealie told CNN that her husband, who works in the information technology sector, was able to find the livestream of the hidden camera through his smartphone.

“[My husband] looked at me across the table [and] I could see that he had seen something shocking on his mobile phone screen and I peered over to have a look,” Nealie Barker said. “I saw essentially myself looking at his mobile phone at the kitchen table. It was such a shock.”

The family then took a picture of themselves using the hidden camera they had tapped into.

Airbnb refunded their money. But that was only after local media outlets in New Zealand reported on it after the family posted about their incident on Facebook. The owner of the property said the camera was to keep an eye on his personal property.

“When you rent a place, they have to make sure [surveillance devices] are removed,” Quweider said. “Otherwise, yes it is a crime. It’s an invasion of privacy.”

According to Airbnb’s policy, hosts are required to disclose all surveillance devices in their listings. Airbnb prohibits any surveillance devices that are in or that observe the interior of certain private spaces, regardless of whether they’ve been disclosed.

Surveillance devices could look like any household object.

“I could compare it to a tidal wave of electronics that’s out there,” said Ric Tamez, the owner of a surveillance equipment store in McAllen.

Those surveillance devices could look like car keys, phone chargers, computer mice, coffee cups and even sunglasses. All capable of record video, audio or both – and many can stream it online.

“You can just use Wi-Fi and really pretty much with a hot-spot, operate a camera from anywhere,” Tamez said.

Tamez sells the latest technology in undercover surveillance, but he says he won’t sell those devices to just anyone, especially those that have bad intentions.

“As a business, we have a moral and ethical obligation to inform all our customers [that if] they mention they want to use something and it’s going to [be used illegally], we have to tell them that,” Tamez said.

But how do you find out if there’s someone else watching? Tamez recommends getting a radio frequency detector.

The device can show you if an item is emitting a radio frequency. The detector also comes with a red filter in which a hidden camera lens becomes visible.

For experts in cyber-security like Mahmoud Quweider, he’s concerned that people’s complaints about hidden cameras at short-term rentals and people’s privacy, are not catching-up with the times and current laws.

“That is why Facebook, Airbnb, [and] Google [are] struggling with this because they’re businesses but they’re not aware of the law ramifications of privacy of data,” Quweider said.

Is the computer science professor and the spy gear shop owner concerned about undercover cameras recording people’s movements in private rooms without their knowledge?

“I always assume there’s a recording device,” Quweider said.

“I make it a habit that I could carry something that would cost me right under a $100 dollars to scan [the room],” Tamez said.

As more and more technology develops, there are more questions now on ethics and people’s privacy. That’s why universities like UTRGV are developing a degree in cyber-security so questions on privacy can be answered and new laws can catch-up with technology.

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