Saturday 17 August 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'How hidden video cameras have become a recurring plague for AirBnb'

Airbnb
Airbnb
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

We would never accept a video camera in our hotel room. We shouldn’t in an AirBnb either.

Yet hidden cameras in AirBnb properties are a recurring plague for the tech company and its guests.

Some ‘hosts’ (property owners) claim that they’re there to prevent feckless guests from trashing the place.

But in an age of increasing concern over personal privacy rights, they leave a very sour taste.

Officially, AirBnb’s rules say that a ‘host’ can put a video camera in some parts of a property, such as the living room or kitchen. But if they do, this has to be clear to a customer that it’s there at the time the rental is booked.

And cameras are never allowed to be placed in “private” spaces, such as a bathroom or a bedroom, according to the company.

If a landlord secretly puts one in anyway without saying, a guest is entitled to a full refund. With privacy law tightening up in recent years, they may also decide to take further legal action.

The problem for many people is: how would you know? A couple of years ago, devices such as the Nest system or a CCTV camera were quite obvious and could be quickly twigged.

Today, a whole host of smaller cameras are marketed specifically highlighting their “discretion” and ability to blend into the background.

And AirBnb hosts are repeatedly using them. Even a cursory search in AirBnb’s own community noticeboard section shows umpteen instances of it. Every few weeks, an egregious example of inappropriate camera use makes its way into the press, often with AirBnb apologising at the end of the customer complaint process.

In the latest example, for instance, AirBnb says that it has kicked the Irish host property out of its network. But it has also admitted that it handled the situation badly, taking weeks to deal with it.

"Our original handling of this incident did not meet the high standards we set for ourselves, and we have apologised to the family and fully refunded their stay," an AirBnb statement said.

One complicating factor is the degree to which cameras and other recording devices are being normalised in ordinary homes. Amazon’s ‘Ring’ doorbell is a good example.

This popular gadget uses a home’s wifi to ‘see’ who is at the door when the button is pushed. The idea is that is someone isn’t home, they can direct a caller such as a delivery person to leave a package somewhere.

It’s also used as a security device. But some callers are uneasy about being filmed or photographed. Where is the line drawn in an AirBnb situation?

A lower-level parallel might even be drawn with voice-command devices such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home. These gadgets, now very popular in Ireland, don’t eavesdrop on conversations or video people.

But they do record requests such as web searches and music queries. Those searches are typically logged to the account holder’s device.

One thing is certain: AirBnb needs to be much better at dealing with problems like this.

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