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How to find indoor cameras when renting a house or apartment

During a recent vacation, I rented a place up in Utah through Airbnb. I was looking around the house and noticed it had a number of wireless IP cameras installed in the common areas.

I often recommend indoor and outdoor wireless IP cameras as a good way to keep an eye on your house while you’re away. However, it’s not something you want to see when you’re staying in a stranger’s house. Is the owner watching you remotely? Are they recording you? If you don’t see any visible cameras, are there hidden cameras?

This is actually turning into a big concern for vacation rentals as more people are finding hidden cameras in the rentals where they’re staying. In fact, Airbnb is currently in a lawsuit after a female renter found a hidden camera in the living room of the apartment she rented (PDF).

The woman claims that she believed the apartment 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 microphone could have picked up.

I reached out to Airbnb for a response on the company’s stance on indoor cameras – but received no reply. However,  their policy is summed up in its FAQs, 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.

Another vacation rental site, HomeAway, did respond to my inquiry and provided the following statement:

The vast majority of HomeAway travelers have a positive experience staying in a vacation rental. In fact, 84% of travelers plan to stay in a rental again after doing so for the first time. However, in the rare event of inappropriate owner or property manager behavior HomeAway will immediately remove the listing from our sites and notify potential guests. We do not tolerate misconduct and there is a 24/7 support team ready to help should anything go wrong.

However, neither of these statements are going to stop someone from putting up cameras. And aside from getting kicked out of the Airbnb program, there are no consequences for putting up cameras. But what about the law?

What does the law say?

The laws on indoor and outdoor cameras vary from from state to state and region to region, so if you run into a specific situation you’ll need to get a lawyer involved. However, there are some general rules.

Landlords can put up cameras outdoors and in “public spaces.” However, they can’t put up cameras, visible or hidden, where a reasonable person would suppose they have a right to privacy, like a bathroom or bedroom.

In the case of renting, that can apply to the living room and other more “public” indoor spaces if the renters don’t know the cameras are there. However, if the landlord discloses the cameras, and you agree to them (even if you didn’t read that section of the contract), then you can bet a legal case will be harder to make.

In a situation where you rent a single room of a house or apartment, this also 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.

So, you wouldn’t rent a place with visible indoor cameras, but how do you spot them if they’re hidden?

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 like the Nest Dropcam can slip behind furnishings, decorations or vents. Then there are spy cameras that hide in everyday objects like alarm clocks or digital 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 even 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, you can use a program like Wireless Network Watcher to see 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.

Given that this is a growing problem, some people are coming up with programs and gadgets to block all the networked cameras in a house. For example, we talked a while back about the script and Cyborg Unplug gadget that can knock wireless cameras off a network.

Of course, it only works for Dropcams and Withings models, and after a 2015 FCC ruling, it could be illegal as it’s considered “jamming.” There are also hardware jammers that just block Wi-Fi entirely, but those are seriously illegal in the U.S.

What to do if you find a camera

If you do spot a camera that wasn’t disclosed to you by the owner, you have a few options. The best one is to vacate the property and contact the police. You should also report it to whichever service you used to get in touch with the owner, such as Airbnb.

In some cases, the camera might be an easily visible security model in the living room, watching the outer door or outside where it can see a pool or hot tub, in which case it’s better to contact the owner first. It might have just not occurred to them it could be a problem. Ask if you can disconnect it for your stay and proceed from there.

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