How to find hidden cameras in an Airbnb, according to a security expert

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Over the December holidays, I was house- and pet-sitting on a lavender farm in Sequim, Wash., when I received a message from the owners. “We peeked in on the girls tonight and they look content,” it read.

The text was comforting, a reassurance that the three alpacas were doing well under my care. But it was also alarming. The couple were more than a thousand miles away in Denver.

I crept outside under the cover of darkness and searched the property for their proxy eyes. I didn’t need a spy manual from a Cold War espionage film to find them. I located the security cameras fairly easily in the driveway and around the pack animals’ pen.

The online profile of the alpaca-sitting house in Sequim clearly noted: “External camera monitoring the property.” I read right over that line. However, some rental-property cameras might be less conspicuous and more malicious, especially indoors. With the right clues, security experts say you can flush them out.

“Most people have a somewhat exaggerated sense of what a bug or video device is. They think it’s like the movies, where it’s extremely small and hidden behind something. That takes a lot of sophistication, a lot of technology and a lot of resources,” said Joe LaSorsa, founder and president of LaSorsa and Associates, a security consultancy firm that specializes in corporate counterespionage. “The overwhelming majority of stuff out there is going to be commercially available devices. People are going to buy them off Amazon, eBay, Alibaba.”

To prove his point, LaSorsa recently conducted a mock search for The Washington Post at a private home in the Raleigh area. The Marine Corps veteran dressed in casual black and carried a mysterious suitcase filled with sophisticated equipment, even though all the gadgets he needed for the sweep fit in his back pocket.

What to know about privacy laws

Homeowners and managers who rent through Airbnb and other platforms often rely on cameras in their absence. In most cases, their motivations are to safeguard their property, not exploit the occupants.

“Most people are utilizing cameras to make sure there are no parties or people stealing things or unauthorized guests or pets,” LaSorsa said.

Even if you act responsibly, the idea of being watched can feel like a personal violation. The “Truman Show” experience can feel even creepier if you spent a portion of your trip unaware you were under surveillance.

Each state and the District of Columbia sets its own rules on covert recordings, though hidden cameras in rooms with an expectation of privacy, such as bedrooms, bathrooms and changing rooms, are generally unlawful. The regulations governing surveillance devices in less revealing spaces are patchier, but the major rental and homestay platforms have created universal policies that apply to all properties, regardless of location or local codes.

Airbnb announced in March it had banned the use of indoor security cameras. Vrbo and Trusted Housesitters have similar policies. Previously, Airbnb permitted cameras in hallways, living rooms and other common areas as long as the host disclosed the gadgets.

“Given the response from Airbnb and similar platforms in recently changing their policies, there must have been concerns in the frequency of people being surveilled or in incidents involving surveillance activities,” said Cobun Zweifel-Keegan, managing director of the D.C. office of the International Association of Privacy Professionals.

The short-term rental companies still allow cameras and smart technology outside, for security purposes only. The host must note the presence and location of the devices online or in the welcome materials.

LaSorsa said the more restrictive measures could push hosts to clandestinely record their guests inside the rental, but he said the likelihood of this is slim. For peace of mind, he recommends spending no more than 30 minutes inspecting your rental for devices. He said a basic understanding of camera operations and a cellphone will do.

“You can find 99 percent of devices with knowledge and awareness,” he said. “A cellphone can go a long way.”

Look for plugged-in household items

Our rental house had an overwhelming number of places to conceal a camera — in books, in musical instruments, in the eye of a giraffe sculpture. But LaSorsa said these are not realistic hiding places because they don’t have an enduring power source.

“Furniture and decorative items are much less of a concern because they would be battery operated,” he said, “and most battery-operated devices only last a matter of hours.”

On the kitchen table, he displayed a sampling of more viable props for hiding cameras, some of which he bought online and a few that he built himself. The collection featured common household objects that would never raise suspicion, such as a USB charger, a smoke detector and a power strip. The objects all relied on a “parasitic” power source, such as an outlet, and WiFi to activate the camera tucked inside.

LaSorsa stepped outside while Post videographer Josh Carroll and I hid the items around the house. We placed them in plain sight and within context, such as the Bluetooth speaker on the kitchen counter. Back inside, he immediately set to work, scanning the rooms for plugged-in appliances and accessories. However, since we were using his devices, he had a clear advantage.

“The first thing that caught my attention was the carbon monoxide detector plugged into the wall. It’s a normal household item, but we don’t know if it’s legitimate,” he said. “It has power. It was added to the home.”

He zeroed in on other potentially doctored objects: the Bluetooth speaker on the kitchen counter, the alarm clock in the family room, the air freshener under the foyer table. He glanced at the speakers surrounding the entertainment center but dismissed them.

“There are several speakers,” he said, “which are probably legitimate for the TV room.”

LaSorsa suggested checking the devices accessing internet in the rental home by using a free app such as AirPort Utility, which manages and displays WiFi networks. To demonstrate, he stood by the carbon monoxide detector and scanned the list of connections on his phone. The homeowner’s Netgear network appeared, but so did several outliers that contained a gobbledygook of letters and numbers, such as “G419637LGWMW.” The jig was up.

“Why would a carbon monoxide detector have WiFi?” he asked. “There again is a telltale sign that it’s more than what it appears to be.”

Mysterious QR codes and the flashlight test

After identifying dubious objects, LaSorsa performed several investigative procedures that would confirm — or deny — the presence of hidden cameras.

He unplugged the items and turned them over, looking for a mysterious QR code.

“This isn’t a manufacturer’s sticker with a serial number that you’re going to register with a company for a warranty,” he said. “So what is the purpose of this? The QR is to connect the WiFi to the apps.”

To confirm his suspicions, he pulled out his cellphone flashlight. He waved the light over the face of the alarm clock and noticed a glimmer inside a tiny hole left of the time display.

“As I move the light around, it’s glistening at me,” he said. “And when I hold the light right in front of it, you can see a lens right there.”

I had to squint to see the lens that was barely larger than the period at the end of this sentence. For easier viewing, LaSorsa pulled out a radio frequency finder with a lens detector and aimed it at the clock.

“It’s going to alert you to the lens that’s in there and confirm that it is a lens,” he said as I peered through the viewfinder.

A red light in the lens detector blinked, exposing the alarm clock’s ulterior motives.

Radio frequency and thermal heat

If you need one more piece of proof to close the case, you could use the same palm-size RF detector as LaSorsa. The gadget, which costs from $20 to hundreds of dollars, determines an object’s radio frequency output. It will recognize RF energy from 20 megahertz to six gigahertz, which is a blessing and a curse.

Nearly every type of electronic device — cellphones, walkie-talkies, baby monitors, Bluetooth speakers, hidden cameras — transmits radio frequency. But if you remove or unplug all of the competing gadgets and the RF count is still high, you can assume a surveillance camera is in your midst.

A more surefire test is to use a thermal detector (about $250) to gauge the amount of heat the suspected item emits. Hidden cameras are cauldrons, apparently. LaSorsa affixed an InfiRay, which resembled a doll-size digital camera, to his phone. For a baseline, he held it up to a legitimate smoke detector. The image on his screen was a cool green. When he positioned the gadget by the USB charger and air freshener, the blob burned bright red.

“There is a little bit of heat coming from some of the other plugged-in devices. Just a faint amount,” he said, as he walked around the house with his phone aloft. “But, as indicated on the device, the hottest point is clearly the unit that’s plugged into the wall. So that would be suspicious, and we would further check that out and see why it’s so hot.”

You found cameras. Now what?

If you uncover a hidden camera, security experts suggest unplugging the device or covering the lens with a towel. Do not remove the offending object. The hosts could accuse you of damaging their personal property.

Report the violation to the rental platform if it’s a minor transgression, or to local authorities if you discovered a camera in a sensitive area of the house, such as a bedroom or bathroom. Consider moving to a different property if you feel uncomfortable in your original accommodations.

There’s no reason that you should be forced to stay somewhere where you don’t feel safe,” Zweifel-Keegan said, “or where you don’t feel like your privacy is respected.”

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