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No room for privacy: How Airbnb fails to protect guests from hidden cameras

CNN  —  It was another lawsuit brought by another victim whose fun-filled vacation turned into a voyeuristic nightmare: A woman was secretly recorded undressing at a rental property, her images stored on the computer of an alleged sexual predator accused of spying on unsuspecting renters for years. Airbnb, one of the world’s largest short-term rental companies, had seen this sort of scenario before. Typically, the company seeks to settle hidden camera cases quickly and confidentially. But this one played out differently. An Airbnb representative testifying at a court-ordered deposition early last year offered a rare glimpse of the company’s hidden camera problem: Airbnb has generated tens of thousands of customer support tickets related to surveillance devices in the last decade. During the hours-long deposition, the Airbnb employee also revealed that when a guest complains of a hidden camera, the company doesn’t – as a matter of practice – notify law enforcement, not even when a child is involved. The company may, however, reach out to hosts about complaints as part of internal inquiries – a move law enforcement experts say could hinder criminal investigations because it gives suspects time to destroy evidence. A CNN investigation found that Airbnb consistently fails to protect its guests despite knowing hidden cameras are a persistent concern within its industry. Airbnb’s corporate strategies, moreover, have been aimed at preventing regulation of the short-term rental market to allow the company to distance itself from responsibility for guest safety and privacy. Thousands of images have been recovered from short-term rental hosts by law enforcement. Hidden cameras placed in bedrooms and bathrooms show guests during their most private moments – changing clothes, being with their children, even having sex, according to CNN’s review of court and police records, as well as interviews with nearly two dozen guests who found surveillance devices at short-term rental properties or were told by police they had been secretly recorded. Victims say they live under a shadow of fear that those private moments will become internet fodder. “This is not my Social Security number or my email address. This is my naked body,” said one woman whose host secretly recorded her having sex with her husband at a cottage in Texas. Airbnb declined CNN’s request for an interview. However, in a written statement, a spokesperson said that hidden camera complaints are rare, but when they do occur “we take appropriate, swift action, which can include removing hosts and listings that violate the policy.” The spokesperson added that “Airbnb’s trust and safety policies lead the vacation rental industry and include background checks on US-based hosts and guests.” CNN found that some of the policies touted by Airbnb come with significant disclaimers. The company’s website, for example, tells users they should not rely on its background checks to identify “all past criminal convictions or sex offender registrations … or other red flags.” And even if Airbnb discovers a user has a criminal background, convictions of “murder, terrorism, rape or child molestation” are not automatic disqualifiers under the company’s policy. ‘The Wild West’ Brian Chesky was unemployed when he and his roommate came up with the idea for Airbnb in 2007 while struggling to make rent in San Francisco. For $80 a night, they opened their home to three travelers, offering them air mattresses, breakfast and Wi-Fi. They called their start-up Air Bed and Breakfast. Thirteen years later, the company went public in the largest IPO of 2020, with a valuation of $47 billion. Today, Airbnb – which is valued higher than Hyatt Hotels Corporation and Marriott International combined – continues to chase the benefits of being an international hotel chain while shouldering few of the costs or responsibilities.