it happened to me You check into a holiday apartment, make yourself comfortable and discover surveillance cameras. Even if the cameras are technically allowed, it is very alarming.
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If you’re going on vacation soon, it’s important to know your rights regarding security cameras in your rental property.
Spying is easier than ever
Years ago, security cameras were expensive and bulky. Nowadays they are affordable and easy to install and hide. Depending on the rental service, the owner is authorized to install cameras.
An Airbnb I rented a few years ago had about a dozen cameras in the house. The owner has disclosed the cameras with tiny writing at the bottom of the listing. Now I read rental offers very carefully and ask these questions before I book:
• Exactly how many cameras are there and where are they located?
• Are the cameras recording?
• What happens to these recordings after my stay?
Airbnb allows security cameras or audio recorders in “public spaces” and “common spaces.” That means no bathrooms, bedrooms, or other sleeping areas. For example, a camera or other surveillance device is not allowed if the living room has a sofa bed. Covert and non-disclosed cameras are also not permitted.
VRBO only allows cameras and other surveillance devices outside of a property. The only exception: smart devices that cannot be activated remotely. Guests must be informed and given the opportunity to opt out.
Tech tips for your inbox: Your privacy is important. That’s why I send out smart tips every day to secure your digital life. Try my free emails here.
But is it legal?
Laws on this sensitive issue vary from state to state. The Federal Video Voyeurism Act states that you “cannot, and knowingly do so in circumstances where the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, take a picture of any private area of a person without their consent”. It is important to note that “private space” refers to nudity or lesser clothing.
Local and state laws typically allow property owners to install cameras in “public spaces.” This is an important distinction. Private areas, such as bedrooms and bathrooms, or anywhere anyone would reasonably expect privacy, are taboo. In a situation where you rent a single room of a house or apartment, things become more difficult.
There’s one more caveat: it’s illegal to record someone for extortion or other malicious intent. Much stricter rules apply to audio recordings than to videos. In many states, both parties need to know that the recording is taking place.
If you rent, check the listing carefully for any mention of cameras. Whether you see a disclosure or not, it is your responsibility to check each and every room upon arrival. I’ll show you how.
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How to recognize surveillance cameras
Larger cameras are easy to spot, but anyone can easily hide smaller cameras behind furniture, vents, or decorations. An easy way to spot most types of cameras is to look for the lens flare.
• Turn off the lights and slowly scan the room with a flashlight or laser pointer to look for bright reflections.
• Scan the room from multiple locations so you don’t miss a camera that’s only aimed at certain spots.
• Check the air vents and any holes or gaps in the walls or ceiling.
You can also get an RF detector. This gadget can capture wireless cameras that you may not see. Unfortunately, RF detectors are not good for wired or recording-only cameras. For these, you need to stick to the lens reflection method.
If you can connect to the rental company’s wireless network, a free program like Wireless Network Watcher will show which devices are connected. You may be able to discover connected cameras this way. I do this in every rental I stay in just to check what’s connected to the network.
Note that the owner may have connected the cameras to a second network, or they could be wired or recording-only cameras, so this is not a fail-safe option.
If a home automation system controls the rental property, finding cameras is relatively easy. Open the system controller menu and look for anything that mentions cameras. Accordingly, you can scan the TV channels for anything suspicious. I found many cameras in a vacation rental this way.
More travel smarts: 5 smart tech steps to take before you set off
What to do if you find a camera
If you find an indoor security camera that hasn’t been disclosed to you, pick up the phone and call the police. Tell them you have direct evidence that your landlord is spying on you in your rented apartment without your knowledge or permission. Use that exact expression.
Document the situation with video and photos on your smartphone. If you are traveling with others, ask them to be witnesses once the police arrive. Remind them that they too would be victims. Once you have your police report, contact the rental station.
It’s not just an annoyance. It’s a serious invasion of privacy.
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Tweet a spoiler? Put a content warning on it. You should also watch your inbox for this new Instagram scam. Plus, Furbo’s latest pet cam gives you 360-degree views. In this podcast I have a look at seven exciting new iOS 16 features and a photography hack for action shots.
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Learn about the latest technology on The Kim Komando Show, the nation’s largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and shares advice on today’s digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. Visit her website at Komando.com for her daily tips, free newsletters and more.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.