Hidden cameras: what travelers need to know

This month, Airbnb announced that starting April 30, the company prohibit the use of surveillance cameras in its rentals. The news was welcomed by those who care about privacy.

“Cameras are both scary and a threat,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the association. Surveillance Technologies Monitoring Projectwho has been campaigning since 2022 for a ban on cameras in Airbnbs. “People are terrified of having their intimate moments photographed without their consent and of having landlords able to monitor their activities within a rental. »

For many travelers, Airbnb's new policy raised some fundamental questions: What were the cameras doing there in the first place? And what are travelers' privacy rights in hotels and rental homes?

Of course, cameras are omnipresent in public life, from supermarket checkouts to airport terminals.

Like other businesses, hotels and vacation rentals use surveillance cameras for two reasons, said Michael McCall, a Hilton Hotels fellow at Michigan State University's School of Hospitality Business: To protect their guests and their property. .

A traveler may feel safer arriving at a hotel room or rental apartment with a security camera in a hallway, for example. And a hotel or host can use cameras to monitor property damage or theft, although whether surveillance is effective in preventing crime is a long-standing question. debate between privacy and security advocates.

“There's a balance between 'How can I protect my stuff' and at the same time not infringing on the expected privacy of the customer,” Mr McCall said. “Airbnb said indoors is off limits.”

States vary on whether and how much consent is required for surveillance, and there are different rules for audio and video recording.

“American privacy law is fragmented at best,” wrote Doris DelTosto Brogan, professor of law and Heller McGuinness Professor of Leadership at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. in Villanova, Pennsylvania, in an email. She noted that some federal privacy laws apply to all states, but each state can develop its own privacy laws.

Airbnb has already overcome these pitfalls by requiring that indoor cameras located in common areas, such as hallways and kitchens, be disclosed to the tenant.

Since 2022, the short-term rental platform Vrbo has prohibited the use of indoor cameras, except those that are disclosed to guests and can be disabled by them.

In a press release, the American Hotel and Lodging Associationwhich represents 80 percent of all franchised hotels in the United States, said surveillance cameras in hotels should be limited to common areas — like lobbies and pools — for security reasons.

Although regulations vary by state, more legal protections cover non-consensual video recording in private spaces such as bedrooms and bathrooms.

At the federal level, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004 prohibits “knowingly videotaping, photographing, filming, recording by any means or disseminating an image of a private area of ​​an individual, without the consent of that individual, in circumstances in which that individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Many state as well as federal laws rely on expectations of privacy. “So it would often be, for example, a bedroom or a bathroom, but not necessarily a common space like a living room,” said Raymond Ku, the John Homer Kapp Professor of Law at the Faculty. in law from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Ohio.

But it was the illegal use of hidden cameras that shocked travelers.

Earlier this month, a Royal Caribbean cabin attendant on cruise ship was arrested for producing and possessing child pornography by installing video cameras in guest bathrooms and capturing intimate images of passengers as young as 10 years old.

In February, a man was stopped in Palm Beach County, Florida, for video voyeurism for surreptitiously filming 16 different people, sometimes on Airbnb sites.

In September, a 14-year-old passenger on an American Airlines plane discovered an iPhone stuck to a toilet seat. the flight attendant had installed.

Legal and security experts say such invasions are exceptions, given the millions of people who travel daily, but merit vigilance.

“People who want to use cameras for nefarious reasons are still in the game,” said Kenneth Bombace, chief executive of the intelligence company. Solutions against global threatsdescribing a new generation of small, subtle and inexpensive recording devices.

At his company, Mr. Bombace uses high-tech devices to conduct searches – from hotel rooms to corporate meeting rooms – for hidden recording devices.

For travelers without notoriety or celebrity status, he recommends a “common-sense search for a location.”

This includes looking for small recording devices or witness lenses in anything connected to a power source such as a clock radio, the power outlets themselves, and battery-charged electronic devices such as detectors smoke and Bluetooth speakers. Turn off the lights and use a flashlight (a cell phone flashlight will work) to look for flashing lights that might reveal a camera.

When in doubt, you can throw a towel over an electronic device or tape over the outlets.

Since many recording devices require an Internet connection to stream footage, check the Wi-Fi network for any connected devices and ask the owner or manager what they are. Apps such as Network Analyzer And Ubiquiti Wi-Fi Man will scan networks and detect connected devices.

Many portable gadgets on Amazon, priced at less than $150, claims to detect hidden cameras.

“None of these technologies are 100 percent effective, but they mitigate and reduce the risks of a recording device going undetected,” Bombace said.

If you find a hidden camera in a hotel room or short-term rental, gather evidence by taking photos or videos and contacting the police. Next, find new accommodations.

Airbnb asks customers to report privacy violations to its customer support team. Vrbo does the same, noting on its website that if you leave a listing due to the violation, “the host may be required to refund the entire stay” and could be kicked off the platform.

Hosts always have methods to ensure that their ownership rules are not violated. Vrbo and Airbnb allow hosts to use devices outside that measure sound decibels without recording conversations if they are disclosed to renters. Vrbo cites their use in fending off potential noise complaints from neighbors. Airbnb, which prohibits party housesclaims the devices can detect “unauthorized parties.”

The platforms still allow external cameras in rental properties as long as they are disclosed to the guest before arrival. Disclosure is usually included in the listing and the device should not be used to look inside. Vrbo goes a step further when it comes to outdoor pool cameras, requiring review both in property descriptions and on-site.

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