Hidden Cameras: What Travelers Need to Know


Hidden Cameras: What Travelers Need to Know

This month, Airbnb announced that, starting April 30, the company would ban the use of surveillance cameras in its rentals. The news was welcomed by those concerned about privacy.

“Cameras are both creepy and a threat,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, which has campaigned for a ban on cameras in Airbnbs since 2022. “People are terrified about having their intimate moments photographed without their consent and having owners able to monitor their activities within a rental.”

For many travelers, Airbnb’s new policy has prompted some fundamental questions: What were the cameras doing there in the first place? And what are travelers’ rights when it comes to privacy in hotels and rental homes?

Cameras, of course, are everywhere in public life, from the self-checkout kiosks at big-box retailers to airport terminals.

Like other businesses, hotels and vacation rentals use surveillance cameras for two reasons, said Michael McCall, a Hilton Hotels Fellow in the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University: To protect their customers and their property.

A traveler might feel more secure getting to a hotel room or rental apartment with a security camera in a hallway, for example. And a hotel or host might use cameras to monitor property damage or theft, though the question of whether surveillance is effective in preventing crime is a longstanding debate between privacy and safety advocates.

“There’s a balance between ‘How do I protect my stuff’ and at the same time not intrude on the expected privacy of the guest,” Mr. McCall said. “Airbnb said the inside is off-limits.”

States vary on whether and what degree of consent is required for surveillance, and there are different rules for audio and video recording.

“U.S. privacy law is fragmented at best,” wrote Doris DelTosto Brogan, a law professor and the Heller McGuinness Endowed Leadership Chair at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law, in Villanova, Penn., in an email. She noted that some federal privacy statutes apply to all states, but that each state can develop its own privacy laws.

Airbnb previously navigated these shoals by requiring that indoor cameras in common spaces, such as hallways and kitchens, had to be disclosed to the renter.

Since 2022, the short-term rental platform Vrbo has banned the use of indoor cameras except for those that are disclosed to guests and can be deactivated by them.

In a statement, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents 80 percent of all franchised hotels in the United States, said surveillance cameras in hotels should be limited to common areas — like lobbies and pools — for security purposes.

Though regulations vary by state, more legal protections cover nonconsensual videotaping in private areas such as bedrooms and bathrooms.

At the federal level, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004 prohibits “knowingly videotaping, photographing, filming, recording by any means, or broadcasting an image of a private area of an individual, without that individual’s consent, under circumstances in which that individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Many states as well as federal laws hinge on the expectation of privacy. “So that would be often, for example, a bedroom or a bathroom, but not necessarily a common area like a living room,” said Raymond Ku, the John Homer Kapp Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.

But it’s the illegal use of hidden cameras that have shocked travelers.

Earlier this month, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship cabin attendant was arrested on federal charges for producing and possessing child pornography by installing video cameras inside guests’ bathrooms and capturing intimate images of passengers as young as 10.

In February, a man was arrested in Palm Beach County, in Florida, on charges of video voyeurism for surreptitiously videotaping 16 different people, sometimes at Airbnb locations.

In September, a 14-year-old passenger on an American Airlines plane discovered an iPhone taped to a toilet seat that her family said a flight attendant had installed.

Legal and security experts believe such invasions are the exceptions, considering the millions of people who travel daily, but that they warrant vigilance.

“People who want to use cameras for nefarious reasons are still in the game,” said Kenneth Bombace, the chief executive of the intelligence firm Global Threat Solutions, describing a new generation of recording devices that are small, subtle and inexpensive.

In his business, Mr. Bombace uses high-tech devices to conduct searches — from hotel rooms to corporate boardrooms — for hidden recording devices.

For travelers without a high profile or celebrity status, he recommends a “common-sense search of a location.”

This includes looking for small recording devices or telltale lenses in anything connected to a power source such as a clock radio, power outlets themselves and battery-charged electronics such as smoke detectors and Bluetooth speakers. Turn off the lights and use a flashlight — a cellphone flashlight will do — to look for flashing lights that might reveal a camera.

If you’re uncertain, you can throw a towel over an electronic device or tape over the outlets.

Because many recording devices require an internet connection to stream images, check the Wi-Fi network for any connected devices and ask the homeowner or manager what they are. Apps such as Network Analyzer and Ubiquiti WiFiman will scan networks and detect connected devices.

Numerous portable gadgets on Amazon priced at less than $150 claim to detect hidden cameras.

“None of the technologies are 100 percent effective, but they mitigate and lower the chances of a recording device going undetected,” Mr. Bombace said.

If you find a hidden camera in a hotel room or short-term rental, gather evidence by taking pictures or videos and contacting the police. Then, find new accommodations.

Airbnb directs guests to report privacy violations to its customer support team. Vrbo does the same, noting on its website that if you leave a property because of the violation, “the host may be required to refund the entirety of the stay” and could be kicked off the platform.

Hosts still have methods to ensure their property rules aren’t being abused. Both Vrbo and Airbnb allow hosts to use devices outdoors that measure sound decibels without recording conversations if they are disclosed to renters. Vrbo cites their use as fending off potential noise complaints from neighbors. Airbnb, which has a ban on party houses, says the devices may detect “unauthorized parties.”

The platforms still allow external cameras at rental properties as long as they are disclosed to the guest before arrival. The disclosure is usually included in the listing, and the device should not be used to peep indoors. Vrbo goes even further regarding outdoor pool cameras, requiring notice both in property descriptions and on site.

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