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Airbnb Disregards Hidden Camera Problem

By Francisco Navarro

Imagine planning a romantic getaway with your partner in a cozy Airbnb you found with excellent reviews. Expecting to have some quality time together, the dreamy vacation quickly turns into a horrible nightmare, as you spot a creepy hidden camera facing directly where you intended to spend some private time together.

This is what happened to a couple in California when they found a camera that was masquerading as a smoke alarm on top of the bed.

Dozens of incidents have been reported to authorities where Airbnb guests find hidden cameras within the property that is expected to be completely private. Yes, even in the bathrooms. It has become a recurrent and serious problem that has been disregarded by authorities and the company itself.

This issue isn’t just an invasion of privacy and a horrible experience for guests, but it’s illegal. It truly is a horrible feeling, to walk into a holiday home and find you are being watched.

In general, surveillance systems and hidden cameras within or outside your home is legal for security purposes. However, privacy laws vary significantly depending on the state you reside in.

For example, in Florida it’s legal to have hidden cameras inside your home even if it is for perverts spying reasons. It’s a whole different story when a house becomes part of a vacation rental company, like Airbnb, and the home-owner is liable for the expected privacy of his guests.

It is a crime to secretly record anyone in your own home without their consent. It violates the “reasonable expectation of privacy” clause of the Fourth Amendment, which states that someone who unreasonably violates another’s intent to keep their private matters from being known, can be held liable for such invasion.  It doesn’t get more private than what’s done in bedrooms or bathrooms.

Airbnb’s rules allow hosts to put surveillance cameras outdoors and in common areas, but never in bathrooms or where guests plan to sleep. Hosts are required to specify if and where they have any cameras at the location for guests to consent to such recording devices.

“We have strict policies regarding the proper disclosure of security cameras and take reports of any violations extremely seriously,” said Charlie Urbancic, Airbnb spokesperson, to NBC News. “The safety and privacy of our community is our priority.”

What’s ironic is that even though they have it specified on their list of rules, homeowners are still breaking the law and Airbnb has proven to be inconsistent with their statements. Most of the time the company does the opposite — it puts the owners’ interest before the customer.

This past January, a man found hidden cameras in his rental that he claimed were never mentioned and reported it. Airbnb said it was consented recording because the cameras were visible on the listing’s photos, even though it wasn’t specified that there were recording devices in the house.

In another incident, after a man found hidden cameras on the bedroom disguised as phone chargers, he was startled and took off with the house keys by mistake. Airbnb contacted him after he reported it and asked him to bring the keys immediately back to the house, according to an investigation by The Atlantic. They are clearly disregarding the severity of the problem.

Airbnb sees this issue as an angry customer complaint, instead of seeing it like what it is – a violation of the law. Airbnb guests should take matters into their own hands and know their rights. Few victims of this crime have actually filed for a lawsuit, but most reported incidents are viable to fight in court. Your own privacy is worth fighting for.

Even though Airbnb is not directly responsible for such incidents, since they are basically the middle-man of a transaction, they should still be held liable to some degree. They should be responsible for the mental suffering and emotional distress this ongoing problem is causing the victims of this unwanted breach of privacy.

It’s not a pleasurable homestay or tourism experience, if you are under 24/7 video surveillance; it’s a getaway, not a prison.  

Francisco Navarro can be reached at francisco.navarro@spartans.ut.edu

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