A Camera is Watching You in Your AirBnB:And, you consented to it.


Jeffrey P. Bigham

@jeffbigham

Imagine you’re looking for a home on AirBnB. You’re doing your due diligence, reading the description of the home, and looking through the pictures. One of the 20 or so photos on the listing is the following -- now that I’ve focused you on a particular photo, look at it in detail, see anything concerning?

A view of a corner of a living room. It's really hard to see, but there is a little camera up in the corner.


If you look super carefully, you’ll see a little white blob up in the corner near the ceiling. Is that some sort of a weird light? Is it some sort of crown molding, or maybe some sort of smoke detector? If you read the title of this article, then you’ll have correctly guessed that it is in fact a camera!

When my family and I stayed in an AirBnB this past winter break, we discovered this camera and another about a day into our stay. I was shocked, and immediately unplugged them. I don’t think we did anything particularly weird in front of that camera, but it’s very likely that my 2-year-old ran in front of this camera naked (the field of view of the camera was close to the exit of the bathroom).

I looked at the home guide again, and it did say that there were cameras “at the entrance,” which these cameras clearly were not. I contacted AirBnB about it, and long story short they said

the single photo above was proper disclosure of both cameras
.A lot of other weird stuff happened during this trip stemming from this -- AirBnB told my host we asked about the cameras, he sent someone to snoop on us, he left us a bad review, etc. My favorite has to be when my host discovered that I had unplugged the cameras, he wrote:
a little snippet of a chat conversation with my host, that say, "Indeed you did dismantle our security system. After Airbnb rejected your clem what were you trying to hide on New Year's Eve"

Well dearest host, it is not my responsibility to tell you what I was doing. But, to ease your mind, I’ll tell you we were doing one of two things -- either we were having a drug and sex party

[1] with 100 of our closest friends, or we went to bed at 9:15 exhausted from kids and being on EST.

What was I trying to hide on New Year’s Eve… indeed.


I’m not sure what to take from this, but it’s scary! There have been super terrible examples of privacy violations by AirBnB hosts,
e.g., people have found cameras hidden in alarm clocks

 in their bedrooms. I feel like our experience is in some ways more insidious. If you find a truly hidden camera in your bedroom or bathroom, AirBnB will support you. If you find an undisclosed camera in the private living room, AirBnB will not support you.

If I ever really have to stay in an AirBnB again, I guess I’ll be taking a much closer look at all the photos, or maybe just explicitly ask my host to confirm there are no cameras inside the home.

As wifi cameras spread, and at least some people find them to be no big deal, I’m worried what it will mean to consent to be recorded by them. In the online world, companies put up long complex Terms of Service that no one could possibly read. Will we be expected to review similarly complex documents/photos every time we enter a physical space? How can we avoid the illusion of consent that we currently have in the online world?

I’ll end this article with a photo my host sent after our stay to support his false claim that we had been “super messy”. It shows someone holding up a sheet that I think is supposed to be “dirty” flipping us off… I’m sure this was an accident

🙄

Anyway, a dirty sheet with someone flipping off the camera represents my feelings for my host and AirBnB pretty accurately right now:

Thanks to Casey Fiesler and Eric March who gave comments on the super-long original version of this post. Thanks to my AirBnB host for making this post possible. And, thanks to AirBnB for being so straightforwardly dismissive of my obvious privacy concerns as to make me angry enough to write all this up.

[1] I’m not nearly cool enough to describe something nefarious in a believable way, but I’m pretty sure my host isn’t either and probably would believe something as weird and vague as this.

This page and contents are copyright Jeffrey P. Bigham except where noted.
Blog posts are not intended to be final products, but rather a reflection of current thinking and/or catalysts for discussion, like tweets but longer.