LONDON: Privacy has become Silicon Valley’s favourite incantation. At every conference, media event and investor day, tech companies chant the word as if their lives (or at least their revenue growth) depend on it.
Apple boss Tim Cook wrote a magazine editorial titled You Deserve Privacy Online. Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai told an audience that his company believed “privacy is for everyone”. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg claims the future is private.
To believe in any of this requires a slippery definition of privacy, involving multibillion-dollar companies knowing where you are, who you are with and what you are up to at all times. But there is one privacy violation that feels more clear-cut: Hidden cameras in Airbnbs.
READ: Is Airbnb sharing or plain old commercial letting? What regulation needs to consider, a commentary
A recent crop of stories about guests finding recording equipment in their lodgings has forced the San Francisco-based company to clarify its position.
If you are paranoid and care to look, it turns out there have been a lot of these complaints. Airbnb guests claim to have found cameras hidden in lightbulbs and routers.
In March, a family staying in an Airbnb in Ireland found one hidden inside a smoke alarm, apparently live streaming everything it recorded.
The host was unapologetic. Airbnb appeared to have no clear policy on what to do.
These tales of voyeurism will unnerve anyone who stays in an Airbnb — and there are a lot of us. The company lists more than six million places to rent in 100,000 cities.
These are often cheaper and more central than hotels. You can stay in an igloo in Finland, a castle in Ireland or, like me, an interchangeable series of spare rooms in large US cities.
LOSING FAITH IN REVIEWS
Most of my experiences are good, though I am losing faith in the veracity of reviews. No one likes leaving negative feedback, so perfectly ordinary bedrooms with slightly dusty cabinets receive five stars, and guests give gushing write-ups — “You must stay in this great place!!!!!” I know, because I do it too.
Uncovering secret recording equipment is a useful reminder of the regulatory grey area that Airbnb likes to operate in.
Hotel regulation in the US forbids cameras from being installed in rooms. But Airbnb hosts are not running hotels.
Hidden cameras are, however, extremely bad for the Airbnb brand, particularly when it has its sights set on a public market listing of more than US$35 billion some time this year. The company has already apologised to the family in Ireland and removed the host they rented from.
Hosts must tell guests exactly where any cameras are. Hidden cameras and cameras in bedrooms and bathrooms are prohibited.
IS PRIVACY A LUXURY?
But shouldn’t everywhere in a house be camera-free? What does the host need to see? If there is damage, they can impose a fine. If they are overly worried, they should stop renting out their home.
I mentioned this story to a younger colleague, who waved away my concerns and said she already assumed she was being recorded in some fashion at all times and did not care.
The prevalence of security cameras in shops, streets and workplaces backs her up, as do apps such as the Google Nest Cam home-security system that allows families to keep track of each other, and smart speakers that record everything that is said.
Privacy is a luxury that is not afforded us if we want to live a life online. To access email, maps and messages, we accept the digital equivalent of spies living in the ceiling, noting down everything we say.
That doesn’t mean we simply want to roll over and allow every iota of data to be recorded. And I remain creeped out by the idea of hidden cameras.
Happily, the spycam stories have tips to help. From one of them, I learnt about IP Scanner and other apps that search for hidden cameras and scan for network-enabled devices. I have since checked my rented flat and the office. All clear.
I’m not entirely sure whether this is helpful or simply fuels my disquiet. When I tell friends, they tend to look sceptical. Then they ask for the name of the app.