Airbnb says sorry after man detects hidden camera with network scan

A New Zealand infosec consultant on holiday with his family in Cork saved them all from being livestreamed by a hidden spycam in an by a) being good and paranoid and b) knowing his way around a scan.

You can see all seven of them smiling up at the webcam in this 1 April Facebook post from Nealie Barker.

That photo came from a camouflaged to look like a smoke alarm. The Barker family only discovered it was actually a spycam because, as Nealie told CNN, her husband, Andrew Barker, routinely runs scans of networks when they check into lodgings and sign on to the Wi-Fi networks.

Nealie says that their first impulse was to call Airbnb. Talk about unhelpful. CNN quoted her:

They had no advice for us over the phone. The girl just said that if you cancel within 14 days, you won’t get your money back.

OK …and if you don’t pack up and vamoose, you get what? Your kids live-streamed on some creepster site, maybe? That’s certainly happened.

Next move: Andrew called the host. The host’s reaction: *Click!*

After the host initially hung up on Andrew, he later called back and insisted that the camera in the living room was the only one in the house.

Nealie:

We didn’t feel relieved by that.

She said that the host refused to say whether he was recording the livestream or capturing audio.

Know thine own policy, Airbnb

Undisclosed electronic surveillance is verboten per Airbnb rules. It’s also completely verboten in “private” spaces, such as bedrooms and bathrooms, even if a host does disclose it.

But in this case, Airbnb seems to have developed amnesia about its own rules. After the family packed up and moved into a hotel, the rental company continued to treat it as if it were nothing more than a cancelled booking. Then, Airbnb’s trust and safety team promised to conduct an investigation, and it temporarily suspended the listing.

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The Barkers didn’t hear back from Airbnb until Nealie reached out to the company, at which point they told her that the host had been “exonerated” and his listing had been reinstated. Nealie said that the “investigation” didn’t include any follow-up with the Barkers; nor did Airbnb provide an explanation for its decision, which it made in spite of the Barkers having presented photos and stills from the video feed.

As Nealie tells it in her Facebook post, it took 33 days and 10 more unsuspecting guests staying in the property (she knows because at least some of those guests contacted her, she says) before Airbnb told her, on 5 April, that it had removed the listing and the host.

In fact, Airbnb didn’t take action to permanently ban the host until after Nealie posted about the incident on Facebook and local New Zealand news stations reported about her family’s experience.

Airbnb provided this “oops!” statement to CNN:

The safety and privacy of our community – both online and offline – is our priority. Airbnb policies strictly prohibit hidden cameras in listings and we take reports of any violations extremely seriously. We have permanently removed this bad actor from our platform.

Our original handling of this incident did not meet the high standards we set for ourselves, and we have apologized to the family and fully refunded their stay. There have been over half a billion guest arrivals in Airbnb listings to date and negative incidents are incredibly rare.

Been there, been spied on

One can be forgiven if one takes Airbnb’s assurance with a grain, or perhaps a pound, of salt. These incidents may be rare, but they probably don’t feel that way to all the people who’ve experienced the beady eyes of creep cams trained on them. Like these people, or this guy, or this guy.

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