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Airbnb still has a serious hidden camera problem

In short: A CNN investigation found that despite being aware of the hidden camera problem, Airbnb consistently fails to protect its guests. Thousands of photos, including private moments such as guests changing clothes or being intimate, have been recovered from hidden surveillance devices. Victims express ongoing fear that the photos could be leaked online.

A recent lawsuit has exposed a disturbing trend in the short-term rental industry: hosts secretly recording guests at rental properties. The case involves a woman who discovered she was filmed undressing and her images were stored on the computer of an alleged sex offender who had been spying on renters for years, CNN reported. Airbnb, a major player in the short-term rental industry, has dealt with similar situations before and typically tries to resolve them quickly and privately. But this case took a different turn, exposing deeper problems at the company.

In court-ordered testimony, an Airbnb agent revealed that the company has fielded tens of thousands of customer service calls about surveillance devices over the past decade. Still, Airbnb doesn’t routinely notify law enforcement when a guest reports a hidden camera, even one involving a child. Instead, the company typically contacts hosts, potentially giving them time to destroy evidence. Privacy advocates have criticized that approach for interfering with criminal investigations.

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In March, the rental broker tried to stem the public outcry by banning indoor security cameras. It gave hosts until April 30, 2024, to remove all indoor security cameras, regardless of their location or purpose. But the new rules are toothless and difficult to enforce. Hosts have never been allowed to put cameras in private areas, which is a problem. So banning them in the rest of the home doesn’t solve the problem.

In response to CNN’s inquiries, Airbnb said that complaints about hidden cameras are rare and that the company takes swift action when they do occur, including removing offending hosts and listings. However, the company’s policies include significant disclaimers, such as not guaranteeing that all convictions or sex offender registrations are identified. Additionally, Airbnb’s background checks are not foolproof, and convictions are not automatic disqualifiers.

Airbnb’s history dates back to 2007, when co-founder Brian Chesky and his roommate began renting out air mattresses from their San Francisco apartment. Since then, the company has grown into a multibillion-dollar entity worth more than the big hotel chains Hyatt and Marriott combined. Still, Airbnb doesn’t have the same responsibilities as hotels, such as maintaining property security, leading to gaps in guest safety.

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The short-term rental industry has faced numerous incidents of violent crime, prostitution, and even guest deaths that have periodically put Airbnb and its competitors in the spotlight. Hidden cameras are a particularly insidious problem that Airbnb has known about for at least a decade but has failed to effectively address.

A famous case involved David Wyzynajtys, who found a hidden camera in his Airbnb rental in Texas. Despite notifying Airbnb, he received minimal support from the company. Law enforcement later discovered that the host had been recording guests for over a year, capturing intimate moments of over 30 victims, including children! The host, A. Jay Allee, was eventually charged and pleaded guilty, but his case highlights Airbnb’s delayed response and inadequate measures to protect guests.

The legal landscape hasn’t helped either, with Airbnb often fighting regulation and accountability in court, arguing that it has little control over what happens on its listings. That stance has made it harder for victims to seek justice and for governments to effectively regulate the industry.

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