Do you really want to be the crazy guest who checks alarm clocks and coat hooks and smoke alarms and USB power plugs and lightbulbs and air fresheners and picture frames and wall outlets for hidden cameras when you check into an Airbnb?
On Thursday, Scottish traveler Dougie Hamilton was sitting there, staring at his Airbnb’s alarm clock, wondering whether he wanted to be that tinfoil hat kind of guest. After 10 minutes, he gave in to the weird feeling he was getting from that odd clock, which he says was wired like a phone charger.
As he told the Daily Record, he “felt a bit weird even thinking it” and kept telling himself “not to be daft. But there was just something.”
Oh yeah, there was something. There was, in the device that was pointed right at the open-plan bedroom, a hidden webcam:
I took the charger out of it and saw there was a lithium battery in the back. At this point, I slid the front facing off the clock and could see there actually was a camera.
Hamilton and his girlfriend, who didn’t want to be identified, had just checked into their Airbnb in Toronto. They were there for about 20 minutes, relaxing after a busy day in the city, before Hamilton noticed the clock.
I just happened to be facing this clock and was staring at it for about 10 minutes. There was just something in my head that made me feel a bit uneasy.
Hamilton and his travel companion didn’t know if the rental’s owner had been watching them, but given that the hidden camera was facing into the living area and the open-plan bedroom, he certainly could have seen whatever he wanted.
It just felt really creepy, and we didn’t want to stay.
We’re innocent-minded people, but the clock was facing where our bed was, and we thought it might be for something more sinister like a sex ring.
Hamilton immediately got in touch with Airbnb, which promised him that it would launch an urgent investigation. The service also told him that the host in question has six other properties that he rents out.
Next, Hamilton called Toronto police. A spokeswoman for Toronto police confirmed to the Daily Record that an investigation into the hidden video camera was under way.
Hamilton says that Airbnb passed the couple’s official complaint on to its security team. Then it gave them a choice of three nearby luxury hotels and told them that they’d get a full refund. Airbnb also said that the host’s future reservations would be cancelled.
Undisclosed electronic surveillance is verboten per Airbnb rules. It’s also completely verboten in “private” spaces, such as bedrooms and bathrooms, even if a host discloses it.
And no, you’re not safe from hidden webcams – or from non-hidden webcams that have been hacked, for that matter – if you opt for a hotel room over an Airbnb listing. Hotel owners have also been found guilty of setting up live links to record people having sex.
You can see why Airbnb hosts would want to record guests: they don’t want their places trashed, and they don’t want their stuff stolen. There are ways to avoid getting ripped off on Airbnb from a cyber perspective, but hidden cameras are a whole other kettle of fish.
Even if hosts use a hidden surveillance camera merely to make sure their home and possessions aren’t trashed, with no intention of nefariously capturing nude images or intercepting private information about their guests, the setup of a hidden surveillance camera, the presence of which was allegedly undisclosed, was still an egregious breach of privacy.
Even if the hosts hadn’t planned to sell or post naked images, that doesn’t mean that an intruder couldn’t hack a webcam and do it in their stead.
How to detect a hidden webcam
Derek Starnes, who works in tech and who detected a webcam hidden inside a Florida Airbnb a year ago, told WFTS that he spotted a small black hole on a smoke detector and became curious. Poking around, he found a camera and microphone had been hidden inside. He immediately alerted police.
There are other ways to detect these hidden devices besides curious little holes. That’s good to know, given that some of them can be hiding behind furnishings, decorations or vents.
For a camera to see you, it needs a line of sight, and that means that you can see it. So visually inspect vents for holes or gaps – you could even look for a lens reflection by turning off the lights and scanning the room with a flashlight.
What to do if you detect an undisclosed camera
- Take photos of the device for evidence.
- Take photos of your accommodation so you can prove that you haven’t trashed the place: some hosts have reportedly made such false accusations.
- Get your clothes on and get out of there.
- Report it to police. You want to stop that stream before other people get swept up in it.
- If you’re in an Airbnb rental, report it to Airbnb, along with your evidence, before it happens to another victim.
By the way, we’ve done more than just two hidden-webcam-in-Airbnb stories. It’s a bit of a genre: here’s a third.
Dougie Hamilton, we don’t think you’re weird for wanting to pull apart that alarm clock. We think you’re reading the right kind of stories. If that makes you feel a little paranoid, well, that’s better than being included in someone’s private sex tape collection. Like say, that of Wayne Natt, the Florida Airbnb host who copped a plea deal after admitting to 14 counts of secretly filming his guests. He’s now serving a one-year jail sentence.