Airbnb guest uses network sniffer to find hidden webcam, Airbnb finds no wrongdoing

Airbnb has a hidden camera problem: Airbnb hosts keep getting caught using hidden webcams to spy on people staying in their unlicensed hotel-rooms, and while the company proclaims a zero tolerance policy for the practice, the reality is that the company tacitly tolerates Airbnb hosts who engage in this creepy, voyeuristic behavior.

Andrew Barker is a Kiwi infosec professional who checked into an Airbnb in Ireland and used an Android app to scan the house wifi; he discovered an unencrypted webcam stream on port 80, and used the video feed to find the hidden camera in the house's living room.

That's when things went from bad to worse. After the Barker family relocated to a hotel, they first notified their host (who initially hung up on him and then protested that there was only one hidden camera in the house), then they notified Airbnb of their finding, whose reps "treat[ed] it like a canceled booking." Then, after a week-long "investigation," Airbnb told the family that "the host had been 'exonerated,' and the listing reinstated."

The Barkers went public with their frustrations at not having been contacted for the investigation or given any explanation for Airbnb's decision, and with the listing being reinstated with no mention of the hidden camera.

After media attention, Airbnb reversed itself and apologized.

Airbnb's policy says that hosts must disclose "any type of surveillance device" in listings, "even if it's not turned on or hooked up." Cameras are allowed in certain spaces if they are disclosed, but Airbnb "prohibit[s] any surveillance devices that are in or that observe the interior of certain private spaces (such as bedrooms and bathrooms) regardless of whether they've been disclosed."

"If a host discloses the device after booking, Airbnb will allow the guest to cancel the reservation and receive a refund. Host cancellation penalties may apply," Airbnb's policy also says.

"We have a zero tolerance stance when it comes to violations and we immediately remove anyone who has violated the policy," Airbnb told Ars.

Airbnb said that its users' "safety and privacy… is our priority," and that it "strictly prohibit[s] hidden cameras in listings and we take reports of any violations extremely seriously."

Airbnb guest found hidden surveillance camera by scanning Wi-Fi network [Jon Brodkin/Ars Technica]

(Image: Nealie Barker)