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Airbnb Has A Hidden-Camera Problem (#GotBitcoin?)

The home-rental start-up says it’s cracking down on hosts who record guests. Is it doing enough? Airbnb Has A Hidden-Camera Problem (#GotBitcoin?)

When Max Vest shook hands with the host of his Miami Airbnb back in January, the man introduced himself as Ralph—even though “Ray” was the name he’d used in all their prior communication.

This was the first and only indication that something was wrong. But his host had a great rating on the home-sharing site, and many of the comments mentioned how friendly and accommodating he was. So Vest, a children’s-camp director from Gainesville, Florida, didn’t think much of the discrepancy and settled into the two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment he’d be sharing with Ralph—or was it Ray?—and his girlfriend for the next five days. At about 8 or 9 p.m., he went out for dinner; by the time he got home, his hosts had gone to bed in the room adjacent to his, and he prepared to do the same.

That was when he saw the light. Two small, black, rectangular boxes were stacked next to an outlet on the far side of the guest room, both facing the bed. From afar, they looked like phone chargers. But when Vest got closer, he realized they were cameras, and they were recording.

He quickly got dressed, grabbed his belongings, and pocketed the cameras’ memory cards as evidence. Then panic set in: It was almost midnight, and he was alone in the home of someone whose name he didn’t even know, apparently being recorded. What’s more, his host could have been watching as he discovered the cameras.

“I didn’t know if I was being watched live,” Vest told me in January. “What I’ve found since is that [the cameras] record to a memory card, but they can also stream live. The host could’ve been watching. Anybody could have been watching.” (The company denied The Atlantic’s, and Vest’s, requests for Ralph’s full name and identity, citing its privacy policy.)

Vest was afraid of what might happen if Ralph saw him leave. “I know what he had [at] stake by being caught,” Vest said. But he managed to leave the apartment without incident, get in his car, and make two phone calls—one to his wife, and one to Airbnb’s safety team.

The company refunded Vest’s money, paid for a hotel room for the night, and eventually removed the host from the site. But Vest alleges that Airbnb made several missteps in the run-up to, and subsequent investigation of, his stay with Ralph. He has retained counsel and informed Airbnb that he is considering filing a civil suit against it under Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. He says the company should have flagged his host sooner for the name discrepancy and the fact that he did not have his landlord’s permission to rent out the property, which is in violation of Airbnb’s terms of service. He also alleges that Airbnb mistreated him during its investigation, and that it should have done more to support him as he reached out to law enforcement. (A representative for Airbnb declined to comment on the specifics of Vest’s allegations.)

In emails reviewed by The Atlantic, Airbnb told Vest that the company is taking his case “extremely seriously” and that guest safety is its “top priority.” But Vest says he feels Airbnb treated him as a frustrated guest when he feels he was the victim of a crime.

“This wasn’t [just] a negative experience,” he said. “This was a criminal act.”

Airbnb’s rules allow cameras outdoors and in living rooms and common areas, but never in bathrooms or anywhere guests plan to sleep, including rooms with foldout beds. Starting in early 2018, Airbnb added another layer of disclosure: If hosts indicate they have cameras anywhere on their property, guests receive a pop-up informing them where the cameras are located and where they are aimed. To book the property, the guests must click “agree,” indicating that they’re aware of the cameras and consent to being filmed.

Of course, hosts have plenty of reason to train cameras on the homes they rent out to strangers. They can catch guests who attempt to steal, or who trash the place, or who initially say they’re traveling alone, then show up to a property with five people.

A representative for Airbnb’s Trust & Safety communications department told me the company tries to filter out hosts who may attempt to surveil guests by matching them against sex-offender and felony databases. The company also uses risk scores to flag suspicious behavior, in addition to reviewing and booting hosts with consistently poor scores.

If a guest contacts Airbnb’s Trust & Safety team with a complaint about a camera, employees offer new accommodations if necessary and open an investigation into the host. In a statement, an Airbnb representative said, “The safety of our community—both online and offline—is our priority, which is why we take reports of privacy violations very seriously and employ sophisticated technologies to help prevent bad actors from using our platform in the first place.”

But four guests who found cameras in their rentals told The Atlantic the company has inconsistently applied its own rules when investigating their claims, providing them with incorrect information and making recommendations that they say risked putting them in harm’s way.

“There have been super terrible examples of privacy violations by AirBnB hosts, e.g., people have found cameras hidden in alarm clocks in their bedrooms,” wrote Jeff Bigham, a computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon whose claim was initially denied after he reported cameras in his rental. “I feel like our experience is in some ways more insidious. If you find a truly hidden camera in your bedroom or bathroom, Airbnb will support you. If you find an undisclosed camera in the private living room, Airbnb will not support you.”

In January, Bigham discovered cameras in his rental that he says were never disclosed. After he reached out to the Trust & Safety team, representatives told him he and his family had in fact consented to the cameras because they were visibly displayed in photos on the listing. After Bigham’s blog post on the ordeal went viral, Airbnb apologized and refunded his money.

But Bigham says customer-service representatives for Airbnb twice sided against him before reversing their original decision, and only after his blog post was widely shared online.

“No one really seems to know what they’re doing,” Bigham said in an email. “And it seems like it’s only going to get worse.”

In a statement, Airbnb said: “We have apologized to Mr. Bigham and fully refunded him for his stay. We require hosts to clearly disclose any security cameras in writing on their listings and we have strict standards governing surveillance devices in listings. This host has been removed from our community.”

Bigham had to rely on social-media visibility to settle his case, but he had crucial evidence: photos of the cameras and proof he never agreed to them. Airbnb says that’s usually enough. During investigations, guests usually have to submit photos of the cameras or recording devices, which Airbnb employees then confirm with hosts. Hosts have a clear financial stake in defending against these claims and are temporarily suspended during investigations. A representative for Airbnb told me it isn’t company policy to tell guests to reach out to hosts. Emails reviewed by The Atlantic tell a different story.

Noelle De Guzman, a trainer and fitness blogger in Manila, reported finding cameras in her Airbnb while traveling with her family over New Year’s. Emails between her and Airbnb representatives show that the company informed her host he was being investigated and told her she must reach out to the host herself to clarify whether the cameras were in use—a violation of the company’s own policy.

Airbnb also told Vest to interact with his host after discovering a camera. In his haste in leaving the apartment that night, Vest left with Ralph’s house keys. In emails Vest shared with The Atlantic, a member of the Trust & Safety team told him he had to return the keys—even though Airbnb had suspended Ralph and begun investigating the complaint. Vest worried that returning to Ralph’s house would prompt a confrontation.

“That told me that they weren’t taking this seriously,” he said. “[Returning his keys] shouldn’t be on the top of their list.”

When Vest found the cameras that night, he had no idea what type they were or whether they were streaming live to his host or saving to the memory cards. Airbnb makes no restrictions on the type of equipment or streaming and storage devices hosts can use—a potential problem for guests as home surveillance cameras get smaller, cheaper, and more advanced.

Alfie Day told me he found a camera in his rental’s living room while he and his girlfriend were visiting his brother in Bulgaria. Day works in IT, so he performed an Nmap scan to learn more about the devices in the home. He discovered that the host had installed a type of camera that could be remotely controlled to pan, tilt, and zoom in on anything it sees. The expanded field of view meant that while the camera was in the living room, it could discreetly follow guests from room to room. The scan also revealed that the camera had a high-capacity storage system that lets users share very large files quickly across the same network.

Day credits Airbnb’s Trust & Safety customer service for responding quickly and carefully, but he still wonders what happened to the video footage. It could theoretically be stored on the device, saved to the host’s cloud account, sent to a shared network for other users to watch, or uploaded to any illicit site, living forever outside Airbnb’s control.

In 2015, Airbnb settled a civil suit brought by a German woman who discovered hidden cameras while staying at a rental in California in 2013. As part of her case against the company, she argued that she now fears that “images of her exist in electronic form and could make their way onto the Internet or some other medium.”

Airbnb declined to comment on the record about the details of the allegations by Vest, De Guzman, and Day.

Vest thought that by taking the memory cards from Ralph’s home with him, he could take back the recorded footage before it was uploaded elsewhere. But leaving with the cards created another problem.

Like many other businesses in the so-called sharing economy, Airbnb is a middleman. It does not own its rental properties or employ its hosts; the innovation that propelled it to a $31 billion valuation was organizing, branding, and putting a professional sheen on the idea of sleeping in a stranger’s home. But even though guests book and pay through Airbnb’s interface—and even though people don’t describe their vacation lodgings by saying they’re “staying with a guy named Ralph”—Airbnb is just a broker. The company imposes rules, mostly to comply with local tax and housing regulations, but company rules don’t supersede local laws, even if guests assume they will. This makes for all kinds of tension, especially when something goes wrong.

Vest told me that when he tried to file a police report with the Miami Police Department, the officers questioned Vest in return, accusing him of theft, because he had taken Ralph’s keys and memory cards when he left the house that night.

Vest explained to the police that no, he hadn’t just stumbled across cameras in someone’s home and stolen their property—he’d been the victim of a crime. The officers didn’t see it that way. Ralph may have violated Airbnb’s rules, but the police don’t enforce Airbnb’s terms of service. In their eyes, Ralph was a homeowner, with every right to have cameras in his own home. Vest, meanwhile, had admitted to taking Ralph’s property without his consent or knowledge.

A spokesperson for the Miami PD couldn’t confirm or deny Vest’s account, noting only that the case is still under investigation by the department’s Special Victims Unit. The police have not formally brought criminal charges against the homeowner, Vest, or Airbnb. According to Vest, the police told him that they’d found footage of past guests, but none of Vest, and that they’re working to identify and contact past guests who appear in the footage. But there’s virtually no way to tell whether the footage is already online somewhere. Airbnb says it is working with law enforcement, both in Vest’s case and whenever guests file police reports.

Vest is relieved that the police are investigating, but he still feels Airbnb should have done more.

“When something like this happens, they need to really be serious about the consequences,” Vest said of the company. “Just removing a listing—it doesn’t really send a message.”

Updated: 12-26-2019

Shooting, Sex Crime and Theft: Airbnb Takes Halting Steps to Police Its Platform

Employees who pushed for more stringent safety measures were overruled; ‘This is the challenge of the internet era’.

Airbnb Inc. employees had a proposal in 2017 for making the home-sharing platform safer for both hosts and guests. Everyone who signs up, they suggested, should have to provide a government identification such as a driver’s license.

The company had suffered through a string of embarrassing safety problems, including prostitution, theft and voyeuristic hosts using cameras to watch guests. An ID requirement might deter bad actors, the employees argued.

It wasn’t the first time members of Airbnb’s trust and safety team had made such a proposal, according to people familiar with the discussions. Once again, after heated debate, other company executives, including co-founder and Chief Executive Brian Chesky, rejected it. Airbnb had studied the issue and found that some users would stop signing up if asked to produce ID, said the people familiar with the discussions.

San Francisco-based Airbnb, which is preparing to go public next year in a highly anticipated IPO, blossomed into a $31-billion behemoth by following the growth-first mantra that has defined Silicon Valley for years. Now it is grappling with the question that could consume the tech industry in the coming decade: How much responsibility should companies assume for bad things that happen on their platforms?

On Halloween night, Airbnb got a reminder of what was at stake. Gunmen entered an out-of-control house party in Orinda, Calif., and opened fire, killing five people. The home had been rented out on Airbnb, then advertised on social media as a “mansion party.”

Days later, Mr. Chesky said Airbnb would launch a 24/7 “Neighbor Hotline” staffed with a rapid-response team to field complaints, expand its screening of “high-risk” reservations flagged by internal systems, and begin verifying all seven million of its property listings for accuracy and quality.

“We are redoubling our efforts to combat unauthorized parties and get rid of abusive host and guest conduct,” he wrote in a series of tweets.

Later that week, Mr. Chesky said the company needed to “take more responsibility for the stuff on our platform. This has been a gradual, maybe too gradual, transition for our industry.”

In early December, after The Wall Street Journal provided Airbnb with written questions about safety issues, the company announced additional measures, including a commitment to spend $150 million on safety initiatives and the creation of a dedicated line where city officials could contact the company when issues arise.

In an interview, Margaret Richardson, Airbnb’s vice president of trust, said Airbnb has been innovating on safety issues throughout its history. “Our aspiration is to keep getting better and better on safety and doing everything that we can to address the issues that have been raised,” she said.

She said that requiring all members to provide a government ID, however, would exclude some Airbnb members who don’t have them, like those in some developing countries. She said the company has its own systems for verifying identities, which relies on phone numbers, social-media accounts and payment instruments. “This is the challenge of the internet era,” she said. “How do people’s online identities and offline identities—how do you match them?”

Airbnb declined to make Mr. Chesky available for comment.

Airbnb said an average of two million people are booked into its listings world-wide each night. In the 12 months ending July 31, it said, 0.05% of trips had a safety-related issue reported by a guest or a host. It said it has more than 50 employees reviewing what it calls high-risk reservations. It doesn’t disclose other statistics about safety.

Airbnb’s platform doesn’t list the addresses of properties, providing them to users only upon booking. To examine the issue of problem properties, the Journal looked at data from several cities that require short-term rental licenses, then cross-checked those addresses against police records. There were hundreds of instances of crimes at licensed short-term rental properties on platforms such as Airbnb, including burglaries, sexual assaults and murders. Some occurred at properties that had been subject to previous police activity, or involved individuals with prior police records.

In Minnetonka, Minn., Airbnb guest Derrick Kinchen climbed into bed with the 7-year-old daughter of the Airbnb family hosting him in September 2017, according to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. The girl’s father walked in to find the girl’s nightgown pulled up and Mr. Kinchen laying next to her naked and aroused. The father immediately called the police. Mr. Kinchen was charged with second-degree criminal sexual conduct of a victim under 13.

Mr. Kinchen had an extensive criminal record over the prior decade, including at least four misdemeanor convictions for false reports to authority, drug possession and stealing, records show. He pleaded guilty last year in the Airbnb case, court records show. In a brief interview, he confirmed his prior criminal history but declined to comment further.

His criminal history wasn’t disclosed to his Airbnb hosts. Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty said the company ran a background check on him, but only removes members with serious criminal conviction histories, such as felony burglary. Airbnb said it isn’t able to disclose specific results of a user’s background check to other members.

Convicted sex offender Phillip Bailey, who police said hadn’t appeared in court on four misdemeanor charges in North Carolina, including stalking and assault on a female, rented an Airbnb with his wife in North Carolina in early 2018. His Airbnb hosts discovered weapons and drugs in his room and called police, who arrested him on the earlier matters, according to High Point, N.C., arrest records. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

Mr. Nulty, the Airbnb spokesman, said after the company analyzed the incident, “our team addressed a vulnerability in our process that prevented this user from being flagged and removed by our background check system as he should have been.”

The way Airbnb handles problems on its platform is likely to be a focus for investors and regulators as the company prepares to go public.

Tech companies, including Facebook Inc. and Inc., have long argued that they don’t bear responsibility for the problems on their platforms, an argument that Airbnb has made in court cases, including over a lawsuit brought by Santa Monica, Calif., over policing illegal rentals. That position is being challenged by some city officials and regulators. Ride-hailing service Uber Technologies Inc. in November lost its license to operate in London after regulators found widespread instances of unauthorized drivers using the app to pick up customers.

Airbnb was founded in 2008, billing itself as a trusted platform where guests could connect with hosts offering rooms, apartments or entire houses. It is now the largest home-sharing platform in the U.S.

One of the first uproars over public safety came in 2011 after a host blogged about her home being destroyed by an Airbnb guest. “They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals…my entire life,” the anonymous host wrote.

The post went viral, and the public outrage caught Airbnb executives by surprise. At the time, Airbnb’s trust and safety team was run by just a few people. The company quickly hired more, and the unit eventually swelled to about 300 employees.

From the start, the team butted up against employees in charge of expanding the company, according to some former employees. It unsuccessfully fought for more frequent and stringent background checks, they said.

Mr. Nulty, the spokesman, said Airbnb screens all hosts and guests globally against terrorist and sanctions watch lists, and that U.S. residents receive more screening, such as sex-offender registrations and felony conviction checks.

When it screens users, Airbnb generally doesn’t ask for a Social Security number—a requirement that some experts on background checks said is crucial to identifying criminals, who might be using fake names.

Airbnb’s Ms. Richardson said running background checks is seen by some as discriminatory against certain groups, including formerly incarcerated people. Some advocates for criminal-justice reform, she said, have advised the company “that doing background checks is not appropriate, and that people are unnecessarily excluded from travel” because of old criminal records.

Some cities have complained that Airbnb has been too hands-off in addressing safety, leaving the cities themselves to police properties and guests.

The Journal’s analysis of available records from Nashville and New Orleans—two popular Airbnb destinations that require short-term rental licenses—identified about 500 properties that had been subject to police activity. Dozens of properties were involved in multiple incidents. The total number of listed properties in those two cities ranged from about 2,400 to 9,500 during the relevant times.

Although Airbnb isn’t the only property-sharing site operating in those cities, a dozen of the property owners in each city contacted by the Journal all said they were listed on Airbnb and confirmed there were police incidents at their properties.

Airbnb’s Mr. Nulty said the company had more than 772,000 reservations in Nashville and 366,000 in New Orleans during the periods in question. He said Airbnb works closely with New Orleans and has met repeatedly with Nashville officials.

“We’ve had over 500 million guest arrivals on Airbnb,” Mr. Nulty said, “and negative incidents are very rare.”

Airbnb relies heavily on a review system to provide feedback to prospective guests. Each host receives an overall review of up to five stars, and their pages show comments on recent stays. Airbnb leaves it up to guests to read the reviews of properties before making reservations.

Not all complaints, though, are visible. If a host or a guest complains to the company about a review by another party, Airbnb sometimes will remove both members’ reviews rather than mediate the issue, according to people familiar with the company’s system for handling reviews. And Airbnb holds both a guest’s and host’s review for two weeks after a visit—a policy intended to discourage members from retaliating against one another.

Airbnb said it would take down a review for several reasons, including if a member is trying to extort another member or if the review is deemed “irrelevant” to a visit. It also will remove a review if a member mentions a continuing internal investigation by the company into a visit.

The property where New York software sales consultant Erik Zambrano stayed in Tulum, Mexico, earlier this year had many positive reviews on Airbnb, he said. On the first night he and three friends stayed there, thieves broke in and stole a computer and some jewelry. The thieves came back the subsequent two days while the guests were out, despite multiple complaints to the property’s manager and Airbnb, according to Mr. Zambrano.

When he returned to New York, Mr. Zambrano said, he looked up the property again and saw claims by other reviewers that they, too, had been robbed there.

According to Airbnb, it received two reviews from guests claiming they were robbed before Mr. Zambrano’s stay. One review, labeled **WARNING**, said the property-management team stole cash, credit cards and a laptop. That guest said he complained to Airbnb.

Because Airbnb holds reviews for 14 days, one of the reviews didn’t post until Mr. Zambrano was already at the property, and the second didn’t post until after he returned.

Airbnb pulled the property from the platform in March, more than two months after Mr. Zambrano’s stay. Mr. Nulty said that when Airbnb receives reports about security, it asks the host to address them, and if it receives multiple reports, listings are subject to removal. That is what it did in Mr. Zambrano’s case, he said.

Airbnb frequently strikes out-of-court monetary settlements to resolve complaints from guests and hosts. In 2017 alone, it made hundreds of such settlements involving refunds, credits or cash, according to people familiar with the matter. In return, users signed agreements saying they wouldn’t file a future claim.

Mr. Nulty said: “We believe that when guests have experiences that fall below our high standards, it is our responsibility to make every effort to remedy the situation.” He said Airbnb had 130 million guest arrivals in 2017.

The company said 0.03% of trips resulted in a “significant claim” being paid out, which it defined as $500 or more.

The large home in Orinda where the catastrophic Halloween house party took place had been the subject of multiple complaints to city officials and police in the prior year about parties and noise, according to city records and interviews with officials.

In March, after a party drew a flurry of neighbor complaints, city manager Steve Salomon and a police official told the property hosts in a conference call: no more parties and no more noise.

In a follow-up email, the city told property owners Michael Wang and Wenlin Luo not to allow more than 13 people on the property at any time, and to change their Airbnb listing to reflect that, according to records reviewed by the Journal. It isn’t clear whether they complied. Ms. Luo declined to comment on behalf of herself and Mr. Wang.

On Halloween night, more than 100 people showed up for what had been advertised on social media as “An Airbnb mansion party.” Next-door neighbors Shahin and Sean Saki heard gunshots around 10:30 p.m. Partygoers began fleeing in panic. “It was chaos,“ said Mr. Saki. In late November, two men were arrested in connection with the shooting.

In the days after the shooting, Airbnb said it was in close touch with the police chief and attempted to engage with other city officials, Mr. Nulty said. Orinda held an hours-long council meeting to debate whether to end short-term housing such as Airbnb. Neighbors, some in tears, gave impassioned speeches. The city imposed a temporary ban on short-term rentals when the owner isn’t present.

The city manager said he invited Airbnb representatives to attend. No one did.


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