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Airbnb guest finds hidden cameras (and 4 tips on how to stay safe on your next holiday)

A New Zealand family checked into their rented Airbnb apartment in Cork, Ireland to make a startling discovery: a hidden security camera was livestreaming from the private living room of their new home.

Nealie and Andrew Barker, from Auckland, New Zealand, were traveling with five children to Europe.  Once settled into their Airbnb place, Andrew Barker, who works in IT, scanned the home’s wi-fi network.

The network scan revealed a peculiar device he could not identify as one of his family’s, so he dug deeper. He scanned the device for open ports and managed to break into what proved to be a (poorly secured) camera. From the angle of the livestream, he tracked down the camera hidden in a smoke alarm case on the living room ceiling.

“It was such a shock. It was just a really horrible feeling,” Nealie Barker told CNN.

The family contacted the Airbnb host, who admitted to hiding the surveillance camera, only when confronted with irrefutable evidence. They proceeded to reach out to Airbnb, just to cancel the booking and move to a nearby hotel.

So what can you do to protect your privacy on your next holiday?

  1. Before you book your next vacation home, on Airbnb or a similar platform, carefully read the fine print of the reservation.
    Airbnb rules require all hosts to indicate the presence of any smart home security cameras or other surveillance devices in their House Rules. All cameras must be disclosed in advance and placed within a visible position, and are in no way allowed in private spaces, such as sleeping areas or bathrooms.
  2. If you want to be transparent, reach out to the house owner to confirm what smart security devices they have installed in the home.
    You may learn about the smart security camera outside the front door, or that your check-in process will conveniently involve a secure smart lock. A house owner with hidden security cameras in the living room will most likely not disclose them to you, but the messaging history will serve as proof if they do get caught red-handed.
  3. Once checked-in, physically scan the place for cameras.
    Security cameras might be in plain sight, or might be hidden in a smoke detector, motion sensor, power outlet, or even that fluffy teddy bear in the corner of the room. Cameras need a clear view of the subject and are usually positioned to capture wide angles, such as in corners or open space areas.
  4. Scan the home’s wi-fi network for connected devices and vulnerabilities.
    Use a smart home network scanner to detect all devices in the network: laptops, mobile phones, smart TVs, smart thermostats, or other home IoT devices. You should find all devices on the router network, their IP, vendor and type, i.e. video camera. There is a caveat: security cameras will be visible only provided they are connected to the internet in the first place, and if they are connected on the same wireless network and the host hasn’t created a guest network for you.

The network scanner Home Guard will display which devices are security cameras and what are their vulnerabilities (such as open ports). In the Irish Airbnb home, it was precisely an open port that allowed the guest to break into the camera and access the video stream. Surveillance cameras can be notoriously insecure, which means that your host might not be the only one watching your every move. A network is as secure as its weakest link in the chain. We would never advise breaking into an IP camera that is not your own, though. 🙂

Relaxing on your holiday should not mean also relaxing your privacy standards. With a few precautions, your only concern on your days off may be whether you need to pack an umbrella or not.