Some time after Jeffrey Bigham and his family checked into an Airbnb just before the new year, he spotted something that was not in the rental's online listing. Staring back at him, above the TV, where the walls met the ceiling, was a camera, and it wasn't the only one.
In posts on his website published this week and in an email conversation with The Post, Bigham recounted the surprising discovery of two indoor cameras, and the dispute that followed between him, the host and Airbnb. His retelling of events and claims of Airbnb's subsequent responses highlight both the public's unease with automated surveillance and the role of companies in facilitating or restricting the mainstream use of everyday surveillance tools.
Bigham, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in his blog post that he was "shocked" to find the cameras and "immediately unplugged them." He said he didn't think the camera above the TV captured "anything particularly weird," but a second camera, whose field of view was close to the exit of a bathroom, very likely caught his two-year-old child running naked in front of it.
According to Bigham, the rental's "home guide," information left in the rental unit by the host, which he reread after finding the cameras, did disclose that cameras were positioned "at the entrance" of the property, but he contends that they were not. Bigham said that he contacted Airbnb about the cameras, but the company responded by saying that the photo showing a camera above the TV was a proper way to inform guests of both the cameras. Bigham said that he did not recall the camera in the 20 or so photos he saw before making the booking. Bigham did not identify the location of the Airbnb rental.
Bigham says that things did not improve after he initially contacted Airbnb.
Not only did Airbnb not help Bigham, he says, but the company contacted the host to inform them that Bigham had asked about the cameras. In his blog post, Bigham included what he says is an Airbnb message from the host, who wrote: "Indeed you did dismantle our security system after Airbnb rejected your clem [sic] what were you trying to hide on New Year's Eve."
Bigham did not identify the host but said that the host left him a negative guest review.
Bigham published his first blog post on Monday. In an update on Wednesday, he said that Airbnb again reviewed his claim about improper disclosure, and agreed to refund him the money for his stay.
Airbnb said in a statement to The Washington Post, "Our community's privacy and safety is our priority, and our original handling of this incident did not meet the high standards we set for ourselves. We have apologised to Mr. Bigham and fully refunded him for his stay."
Airbnb added that hosts are required to disclose any security cameras in writing on their listings and that the company has strict standards on surveillance devices. Airbnb said that Bigham's host has been removed from the platform.
Bigham told The Washington Post that Airbnb presented the situation to him as a breakdown in their customer support. And while his personal ordeal was resolved, "not everyone will be fortunate enough to have a blog post about their experience go viral."
"You should not spy on other people," states Airbnb's Community Standards page. Under a section on Security, Airbnb says that "cameras are not allowed in your listing unless they are previously disclosed and visible, and they are never permitted in private spaces (such as bathrooms or sleeping areas)."
Bigham said as his story has gained greater attention, he's heard from both guests and hosts about their experiences with cameras in Airbnb rentals.
He said he'll be taking a closer look at Airbnb photos if he uses the service again, and will consider asking a host to confirm that they don't have cameras inside the home. But more broadly, he said he worried about the bigger implications of consent and privacy as Wi-Fi-connected cameras grow in popularity, and surveillance becomes more mainstream.
He's heard from hosts who say they use cameras to protect themselves against unruly guests who damage their homes. While he acknowledged that it can be difficult to be a host and a guest on Airbnb, "I don't think cameras should be inside the homes," he said.
"[A]LL of us need to think carefully about how we will live in an increasingly surveilled world," he wrote. "Just because it's so easy to record everything now doesn't mean we should."
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