Airbnb is in the news again for all the wrong reasons, but at least this time it’s not because of potentially anti-Semitic policies. Instead, it’s just a complete privacy evasion. While the company itself did not spy on anyone, the way the company runs makes it impossible for Airbnb to have a level of quality control that would prevent a renter from spying on people using their properties.
By: Arianna Yamachi
A New Zealand family found out about Airbnb’s lack of quality assurance the hard way when the family members discovered a hidden camera that was not only recording them in the Irish residence they were staying in but was also live-streaming the feed, CNN reports. If it weren’t for some handy IT skills, the Barker family may have never found out that what they were doing in that property during their 14-month European trip was being recorded and streamed out to anyone with access.
Andrew Barker was in the property with his wife, Nealie, four of their own kids and a niece. He used his security skills to run a scan of the Wi-Fi network in the house. While he was running routine diagnostics and tests to check for things like signal strength and security strength, he made a discovery that he and his wife could not believe when a hidden camera came up in the scan, CNN reports. Without running the scan, there would have been almost no practical way to find out that a smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector was actually being used to house and hide a spying device that was streaming live.
“It was such a shock. It was just a really horrible feeling,” Nealie Barker said to CNN.
Airbnb was not of much help either once the couple contacted them to let them know what happened and to seek advice. Nealie Barker said that Airbnb “had no advice for us over the phone,” adding “The girl just said that if you cancel within 14 days, you won’t get your money back.”
After getting next to no help from Airbnb itself, Andrew Barker went right to the source and called the property owner. Considering that the property owner was surreptitiously monitoring them, Barker did not know what kind of person with whom he may be dealing. He could have been entering a dangerous confrontation because Airbnb forced him to take matters into his own hands.
The Barkers said that the owner originally hung up right away after being questioned about that camera, but he did call back later and use the excuse that there was only one camera in the house. The fact that there was only one camera does not make this situation any better. It’s a non-sequitur excuse and an admission of guilt.
“We didn’t feel relieved by that,” Nealie Barker said about the communications with the host. The couple couldn’t even get more information out of him, like how exactly the live stream was being used. Even after the family had to check into a hotel later, Airbnb still failed to listen and appropriately respond to what Nealie Barker said was “the seriousness of the issue. They were treating it like a canceled booking.” The company did at least take some eventual action, having suspended the listing but not permanently. The company said it would run an investigation too. Once this story started spreading throughout media, Airbnb banned the host permanently.
Airbnb gave its side of the story 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.”
The statement continued “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.”