On a recent trip, I quickly rented an Airbnb private home and only after I was there I noticed it was loaded down with a slew of indoor surveillance cameras. It got me thinking. What’s the legality of this? Is there anything I can do about it?
Concern over hidden cameras is growing, especially when it pertains to rental properties. In fact, right now Airbnb is involved in a lawsuit over just that. According to the case file, a woman claims that she believed the apartment she rented to be a private space, so she was frequently nude in the living room. Also, she and her travel companion discussed sensitive topics like finances and relationships that the camera’s microphone could have picked up.
The company’s policy is summed up on its website, which says:
“We expect hosts to respect their guests’ privacy. You must notify your guests about any security cameras or other surveillance devices at or around your listing, and get consent where required. The use of surveillance equipment may also be against the law in some places, so make sure you understand your local regulations.”
The property that I rented did disclose in the listing at the very end that there were security cameras in the house. In retrospect, here’s a lesson learned. I should have asked the host some very pointed questions such as the exact number of cameras, the location of the cameras, whether the cameras were recording, and what happens to those recordings after my stay.
I spoke with Nick Shapiro with Airbnb about my situation. He was quick to point out that Airbnb takes privacy concerns very seriously. Had I not been informed of the indoor cameras and reported it to them, Airbnb would have actually put me up at a nearby hotel.
They would also investigate the matter and if undisclosed cameras were found, that landlord’s listing on Airbnb would be terminated. That’s reassuring customer service from a company as big as Airbnb.
Laws on this sticky subject vary from state to state and sometimes, city to city. There is no overriding federal law. But in general, local and state laws usually permit landlords to install cameras in “public spaces.”
This is an important distinction. Private areas, like bedrooms and bathrooms, or anywhere else that anyone would reasonably expect privacy are off limits.
In a situation where you rent a single room of a house or apartment, it gets trickier. Your expectation of privacy would only apply to the room and the bathroom. The person renting can put cameras elsewhere, such as the living room or their rooms, and it would likely be legal.
However, as Brickhouse Security reminds us, recording someone for the “purpose of blackmail or other ‘malicious intent’” is illegal in any situation. Also, audio recording has much stricter rules than video. In many states, both parties need to be aware that the recording is taking place.
If you’re renting, first check the listings carefully for any mention of cameras. Regardless, your job upon arrival is to check every single room. The good news is that finding these cameras only sounds difficult.
How to spot and disable cameras
Cameras come in all shapes and sizes. There are larger ones that look like cameras, which are easy to spot. Smaller cameras, such as the Nest Dropcam, can slip behind furnishings, decorations or vents. Then there are spy cameras that hide in everyday objects like alarm clocks, stuffed animals or picture frames.
A simple way to spot most types of cameras is to look for the lens reflection. This requires turning off the lights and slowly scanning the room with a flashlight, or laser pointer, looking for bright reflections. It works even better if you’re looking through something like an empty roll of toilet paper because it narrows your focus. Be sure to scan the room from multiple spots so you don’t miss a camera pointed only at certain places.
You should also do a close visual inspection of the vents, as well as any holes or gaps in the walls or ceilings. Fortunately, for a camera to see you, you have to be able to see it as well, so it can’t be entirely hidden.
There are gadgets on the market that are geared specifically toward lens detection, like the Brickhouse Security Mini Hidden Camera Detector. It’s $100 and it uses flashing red LEDs for better detection. Brickhouse makes other gadgets that use lasers instead of LEDs and have other fancy features, but those get up into the $500 range and are mainly meant for law enforcement.
In addition to lens detection, you can also get an RF detector. This can pick up wireless cameras within 10 feet or so. Some of the expensive ones have screens to show you what the camera is seeing. Unfortunately, RF detectors aren’t great for wired or record-only cameras. For those, you’ll need to stick with the lens reflection method.
You can find RF detectors for under $30, but the quality is suspect. Brickhouse makes a basic model that sells for $70. It also has a model for $140 that combines an RF detector with a lens-reflection detector.
If you can connect to the rental’s wireless network, a free program like Wireless Network Watcher shows what gadgets are connected. You might be able to spot connected cameras. Just be aware that the owner might have put the cameras on a second network, or they could be wired or record-only types.
If the rental property is controlled by a home automation system, it’s fairly easy to find cameras. Open the system controller menu and look for anything mentioning cameras. Accordingly, scan the TV channels for anything suspicious.
There are hardware jammers that block Wi-Fi entirely. Using these, you could essentially take any and all Internet-enabled cameras offline. But jammers are illegal in the U.S.
What to do if you find a camera
If the presence of indoor surveillance cameras was not disclosed to you, the answer is simple: Pick up the phone and call the police. Tell them you have direct evidence that your landlord, or Airbnb host, is spying on you, without your knowledge or permission, inside your rental home. Use this exact phrase.
While you’re waiting for police to arrive, document the situation with video and photos on your smartphone. If you are travelling with others, ask them to be witnesses. Remind them they were about to be victimized, too.
Once you have your police report, contact the rental site.
Make no mistake. Stumbling over surveillance cameras isn’t just creepy. This is a big deal involving your basic constitutional rights and the law.