It’s been a long journey, and you’re ready to hang the “Do not disturb” sign on your hotel room’s door handle. The place seems reasonable – a comfortable space for you to lay back and unwind. But as you get ready to settle down, you get the sense that you’re being watched.
There are few sensations more unsettling than this invasion of privacy, so you immediately search your room. You check the bathroom, but nobody’s there. You open up the wardrobe, only to find that it’s empty except for a few hangers. And after checking underneath the bed, you conclude that you’re just being paranoid. Still, though, you can’t shake the feeling.
You decide to lie down on the bed and try to forget about it. It’s been a long day, and you’re probably just overtired. Surely if you relax a little, everything’ll be fine. So, you turn on the TV and think about running a bath. Then as the warm water soothes your body, you even begin to feel yourself calm down a little. But that’s when you notice it.
There’s a shelf hanging from the wall beside your television. It doesn’t seem particularly important, yet for some reason you can’t take your eyes off it. You can see a black object resting on this platform – maybe it’s a charger for a cellphone? Nothing about it seems alarming, but you nonetheless feel that something’s wrong with this thing.
You decide to hop off your bed and approach the shelf. And the closer that you get, the more obvious it becomes that this object is not, in fact, a phone charger. You pick it up, but even now you still don’t quite know what it actually is. Eventually, though, the penny drops: you’re holding a tiny camera.
This is a nightmarish scenario, but it’s one that more of us today are beginning to dread. Technological advancements have led to increasingly sophisticated hidden cameras appearing on the market. Yep, we now live in a world where these devices are no longer merely the stuff of Cold War spy thrillers.
Society today is already significantly defined by camera technologies. Our phones, after all, are kitted out with the instruments, and CCTV systems are generally in operation throughout urban areas. But the emergence of hidden cameras in places we thought were private spaces adds an entirely new dimension to the issue.
Hidden cameras naturally have the potential to impact all aspects of society. Not only could they be utilized to infiltrate your home, but they might also be set up in public spaces, too. In fact, there have been reports of such devices recording footage in restrooms, airplanes and medical clinics.
Some justifiably argue that the usage of hidden camera technology is appropriate and justified in certain situations. It might, for instance, be utilized in order to protect a business from falling victim to vandalism or theft. But there’s unfortunately little to stop a person with more sinister motives from using these cameras, too.
It’s quite disturbing to think about how easy it is for absolutely anybody to acquire hidden cameras these days. And given their clandestine nature, it’s difficult to say for sure how widespread their usage really is. This is an unsettling notion – especially when we consider how suited the devices are for shady activities.
You might be shocked by the sheer variety of hidden cameras available if you decide to look online. It’s a straightforward task to pick up cameras masquerading as picture frames, fire alarms, power adapters and alarm clocks. Yet perhaps even more unsettling is just how simple these devices are to set up.
Horror stories of these cameras in action have begun to emerge in recent times. For instance, in March 2019 NBC News ran a story laying out some of these disturbing tales. One revolved around a woman from Florida called Paige Blair, who discovered a clandestine camera set up in her Airbnb.
During her stay, Blair apparently discovered two separate cameras monitoring her activities inside the accommodation. As she recalled to NBC that month, “I turned to leave the kitchen and there was a camera.” Blair went on, “Suddenly every little tiny pin hole and every piece of sheet rock looked like a camera to me.”
Blair was understandably outraged by this invasion of her privacy. So she got in touch with Airbnb to lodge a complaint. The company responded by providing her with a refund, but she was still dismayed by the experience. Blair told NBC News, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with, and frankly Airbnb doesn’t know, either.”
To get the other side of the story, NBC News reached out to the owner of the Airbnb property to seek a response. And this person – known only as Aaron – appeared to regret what had happened. He said, “I felt bad. I understand how she felt uneasy – being a single female traveling alone.”
The homeowner attempted to justify his cameras by pointing to instances of forced entries in other properties. And he claimed that his recording technology was set up for the sake of his insurance policy. Aaron also alleged that he wasn’t actually able to view the footage from a remote location.
People who rent out their properties through Airbnb might also feel inclined to set up cameras throughout the place for more reasons than insurance. They might argue that it keeps the house safer, for instance. In addition, it could assure them that the people staying in the space don’t break any rules.
These measures could be justified, though, if the homeowner clearly informs their guests of the cameras in advance. For instance, NBC News reported on an owner of an Airbnb property in New Orleans who printed out an information sheet mentioning the cameras. They then stuck this on a wall inside the property. And the person claimed that many of her guests welcomed such a measure.
But even when cameras are acknowledged in advance of a guest’s arrival, it can still be problematic. Ned Mooslin, for example, was aware that his Airbnb rental was going to have cameras. But when the contractor showed up, he discovered that the camera was inside the kitchen – positioned to catch and fine guests who didn’t wash their crockery. Speaking to NBC News, Mooslin remarked, “It felt very oppressive – like every move was being watched and recorded.”
Cameras that are clear to see can be unsettling enough, but the notion of discreet devices can be even worse. A professor in computer science called Jeff Bigham knows this from personal experience, after he found some hidden cameras in his Airbnb. Appalled by the situation, Bigham wrote a blog post that eventually gained some traction.
In his blog entry, Bigham wrote both of his own experience and also of some things that others have gone through. He said in 2019, “There have been super terrible examples of privacy violations by Airbnb hosts. [For example], people have found cameras hidden in alarm clocks in their bedrooms.”
Bigham’s piece encourages readers to really ponder the levels of surveillance that we find acceptable in society today. He wrote, “All of us need to think carefully about how we will live in an increasingly surveilled world. Just because it’s so easy to record everything now doesn’t mean we should.”
As things stand, though, we can’t deny that surveillance is a huge aspect of contemporary life. But we shouldn’t have to feel like our privacy is being invaded when we’re staying somewhere that isn’t our home. So, what measures are available to us to protect our solitude when we stay in a hotel or an Airbnb?
Back in 2018 SmarterTravel Media’s managing editor Caroline Morse Teel sought to figure out how best to locate secret cameras. So, she got in touch with a person from the U.S. military with specific experience in searching for devices of this nature. And this individual – known only as “The Monk” – naturally had some insight to share on the subject.
The Monk explained, “There are essentially three primary methods for checking for a hidden camera: scanning of radio frequencies, lens detection and physical search. Many handheld devices that do RF scanning and lens detection are available on the commercial market – with most costing less than $100. However, no single method is going to be 100 percent accurate.”
But what is The Monk referring to when they talk about RF-scanning handheld devices? Well, they’re referring to instruments that pick up on signals given off by secret cameras. Consumers can actually buy equipment such as this quite easily nowadays. So, at least we’re not totally defenseless against those seeking to invade our privacy.
Sadly, though, RF scanners are by no means a sure means of finding hidden cameras. As The Monk explained to the website Smarter Travel, “RF scanning… will only help in identifying a device if that device is actively transmitting. If the data is transmitted only at intervals, then an RF scanner will be fairly useless.”
So, what of The Monk’s other tips? Well, lens detection can be a useful measure in identifying a hidden camera. To do this, basically, you need to plunge the room into darkness and switch on a flashlight. Then look around the room using this light. If there’s a camera hidden away, then hopefully its lens will reflect the light and you’ll notice it.
The Monk told Smarter Travel, “Lens detection is very effective if used properly. But it requires patience and proper technique. If you are too far from the lens, sweep the room too quickly or are just standing at the wrong angle from the lens, then you’ll likely miss seeing the lens when it reflects the light from your own light source.”
Yet what if you don’t find a camera but you’re still suspicious? Well, you’ll have to resort to active searching. This will be a tedious task – meaning that you’ll have to look through every nook and cranny. So many objects in the room, after all, could potentially be used to conceal a video recording device.
But The Monk warned that searching yourself isn’t a flawless solution, either. He said, “Physical inspection can be the most thorough method. But this requires both patience and access that you may not have. If you can’t get away with prying open smoke detectors, opening the backs of paintings, and possibly opening a section of a wall to see if anything is inside, then you won’t be able to complete a full and proper physical search.”
So, given that these cameras can be really difficult to find – even when you’re actively looking for them – it’s important that you consider certain factors. First off, you need to give some careful thought as to where a person might position their camera. And a hotel security expert named Jack Plaxe offered some advice to Smarter Travel on this point.
Plaxe said, “Cameras typically need a clear view of the subject to get the best images. A visual scan of the room in key areas such as sleeping rooms [and] bathrooms… may reveal clues that lead to the discovery of covert devices. For example, an unusually positioned object in the room may warrant a closer inspection.”
The Monk also added his two cents to this point. He suggested, “Bathrooms, bedrooms and office space [and] desks are very common targets. Areas where computer screens are going to be visible are especially sought after, as the camera may capture login passwords, bank account information, personal browsing habits and all sorts of other valuable information.”
But despite knowing these tricks of the trade, there really is no guarantee that you’ll find a secret camera. If the person rigging the device is in anyway technologically competent, then they’ll be able to set it up within the most mundane of objects. And this will ultimately make it really hard to find.
If the camera’s located inside something humdrum like a power adapter, there’s every chance it could be overlooked. This means that you’ll need to keep an eye out for other signs that something is amiss in the room. Thankfully for us, though, The Monk elaborated on some of these indicators to Smarter Travel.
The Monk said, “In hotel rooms, for example, if items continue to be placed in a particular location after a room is serviced, then that could be a sign that the item needs to be positioned that way so that a camera has a good angle of view. Of course, this could also just be the maid tidying up. So, don’t immediately jump to full paranoia.”
We should all be mindful of hidden camera technology – especially when we’re staying in a place that we don’t know. Hotel rooms and Airbnb properties could potentially be housing spying technologies, so knowing what to look for is a useful skill. Hopefully, it’ll mean that we can maintain our private lives against these sophisticated technologies.
According to The Monk, it would be wise for us to undertake each of his three steps for locating secret cameras. Neither method is completely reliable, of course. But taken together, they should at least increase our chances of finding a concealed device, and we’ll be in a better position than we otherwise would be.
The Monk concluded, “When faced with these types of limitations, often it is best to utilize a hybrid of all three search methods to whatever extent you find possible. You may not be able to achieve 100 percent confidence that the space is clear of hidden devices. But you’ll be a lot closer than you were when you first walked into the room.”