When Are Cameras Legal in an Airbnb (and How Can You Spot Them)?
When you rent an Airbnb, you’re obviously staying on else’s private property. And those property owners all have different ideas about how to run their DIY hotel—and a lot of them like security cameras and other recording devices. On the one hand, this makes perfect sense: The property owners worry that the randos they rent to will tear the place apart or do crimes while on their property. On the other hand, it’s pretty creepy, especially when the recording equipment is hidden and you’re not aware of it.
What complicates the question of whether your Airbnb host is allowed to record you is the overlap between Airbnb’s rules and the actual laws governing recordings in the local area.
What is Airbnb’s policy about cameras and other recording device?
Airbnb explicitly prohibits hidden recording devices of any kind. If you discover a camera or other kind of recording device that’s been hidden (in a smoke alarm, an alarm clock, or other spot), you should report it to Airbnb and the police. However, Airbnb hosts can have recording devices outside the property to monitor the perimeter, and inside the property in common areas. Common areas are defined as places where you, as a guest, don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and include living areas and hallways. They are not permitted in bedrooms or bathrooms at all—and if a room normally considered a common area has a bed in it, it is considered a bedroom and thus cameras aren’t allowed.
Airbnb requires that hosts disclose recording devices on their property, so if you rent a property and arrive only to discover cameras all over the place, you have a legitimate beef. Some hosts use tricks to obscure these disclosures, like listing them in teeny-tiny font at the bottom of a listing. VRBO has a more restrictive policy that bans most recording inside a property, and requires that guests have the ability to deactivate devices inside the property.
One thing some hosts miss is that Airbnb has some pretty broad definitions of recording devices. Basically, anything that can record you counts—and that includes things like laptops or even smartphones left lying around. So if a host has a computer in a room with a microphone and a webcam, they’re supposed to disclose that to you because it could potentially be used to record you. And for what it’s worth, Airbnb also explicitly prohibits guests from secretly recording their hosts.
What does the law say about recording devices?
As you might expect in this perfectly functioning democracy of ours, the laws regarding recording Airbnb guests are muddled, at best. At the federal level, there’s a law against capturing images of “private areas” (i.e., our bathing suit areas) without someone’s consent if that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. That means that if your host informs you of a camera in the living room and you go flouncing about naked as the day you were born, the host is perfectly within their rights, but if they mysteriously capture a video of you emerging from the shower, it’s a federal crime. It’s also illegal to record someone if your intention is to blackmail them or harm them in some other way—though intent can be tricky to prove.
When it comes to the individual states, it’s a mixed bag. In general, every state has some sort of law making it illegal to record someone when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and that’s about it—in 34 states, that’s all the protection you get. Outside of the bedrooms and bathrooms, in other words, all you have protecting you are Airbnb and VRBO’s rules.
The other 16 states have varying levels of additional protection:
In Kansas, New Hampshire, Maine, South Dakota, and Delaware, consent for hidden surveillance must always be obtained, and any recording devices must be clearly visible.
In Alabama, Florida, and Minnesota, it’s explicitly illegal to use hidden recording devices in private areas.
In Hawaii, you can install all the cameras you want as long as you obtain consent from the folks being recorded. In Arkansas you can even record people in private areas as long as they consent. And in Georgia you can install cameras anywhere, but only if they are clearly visible and easily identified.
In California, any recording of any sort of communication that could be considered confidential (i.e., not intended for public broadcast) is illegal. That basically makes recording you in an Airbnb impossible.
How to locate hidden cameras in an Airbnb
If you start to get that creepy Jordan Peele movie sense that you’re being watched in your short-term rental, there are some simple ways to look for hidden cameras:
Use a flashlight with the lights off to look for reflections off camera lenses.
Peer into vents covers and other openings in the wall where a small camera could be hidden.
Unscrew and inspect smoke alarms and other wall- or ceiling-mounted appliances.
Use network-scanning apps like Fing to look for connected devices on the wifi
All of these techniques take a little patience and time, but can offer you a little peace of mind when staying in someone else’s home. If you do locate a camera that wasn’t disclosed to you, document it with photos, call the police, and make a report. Then contact the platform you rented through and file a complaint.