Update: Airbnb has responded to our request for comment, which we’ve included in full at the bottom of this story.
Imagine you’re staying in an Airbnb, and you wake up in the morning to discover a discreet video camera. Has your host been recording you? Worse, what if you and your traveling companion were tearing up the sheets all night, and now your host has some guest porn on their hard drive? Is that even illegal?
In September, we examined how Airbnb had no policy that said you couldn’t film guests, or even a single mention of guest privacy in its hosting policies. Turns out, Airbnb quietly updated their policies shortly after our reporting.
It appears as though the following language was added to the “Minimize Hazards” section of the Airbnb Responsible Hosting policies during the week of September 21:
Privacy: Always be mindful of your guests’ privacy. Fully disclose whether there are security cameras or other surveillance equipment at or around your listing. Make sure you are aware of and comply with applicable federal, state, and local laws.
We haven’t received comment yet from Airbnb, but it seems more than a mere coincidence that the update came a week or two after our reporting.
The language might seem a little timid compared to possible alternatives like “We expressly forbid hosts from filming guests without their permission,” but Airbnb suggesting that hosts look into their state’s laws is smart. The trouble with knowing the difference between what’s legal or not is that those cases are handled at the state level, and in states where the issue hasn’t come up, there’s simply no precedent.
The murkiness in the law comes from the difference between homes and hotels. In a real hotel, you have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy which says that you cannot be unwittingly surveilled without a warrant. But when it comes to putting up cameras in your own home, that’s not so much the case, nanny-cams being an example of legally surveiling your own home.
Airbnb rooms, however, straddle the line between private dwelling and hotel room, and Airbnb has an interest in keeping it that way. As we explained in our original story:
In many states, if a homeowner takes payment from guests, their home ceases to be considered a private residence under the eyes of the law. This is what protects tenants from having their actions recorded by landlords. But for that to apply to Airbnb hosts, they would have to admit that hosts are running commercial enterprises — or at very least, short-term leases — which would ruin their multi-million dollar campaign to insist that’s not the case.
A publicly stated policy is a good start, but unfortunately, Airbnb is still deferring responsibility to their hosts and sluggish legislators. Unlike a proper hotel, there’s no sophisticated screening or inspection process for guests, so the only way we’ll ever know if someone has been running a small amateur porn empire featuring unwitting guests as cam stars will be at trial.
Update: Airbnb spokesman Jakob Kerr responded to our request for comment with this statement:
We expect all of our hosts to follow their local laws and respect the privacy of their guests. If a guest ever feels uncomfortable at a listing, they may reach out to our 24/7 customer team for assistance. Earlier this year, we added information to our site on this matter
He also directed our attention to further policy language, including the following policy statement, under “Can I install video or audio surveillance in my listing?”:
We expect hosts to respect their guests’ privacy. Although we can’t provide you with specific legal advice, the use of surveillance equipment may violate the law in your jurisdiction. Notify your guests about any security cameras or other surveillance devices at or around your listing and get consent where required.