It happened to me. You check into a vacation rental, settle down and see the surveillance cameras. Even when cameras are technically allowed, it is very alarming.
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If you are going on vacation soon, it is essential to know your rights regarding the surveillance cameras in your rental.
Spying is easier than ever
Years ago, surveillance cameras were expensive and cumbersome. Nowadays, they are affordable and easy to install and hide. Depending on the rental service, the owner has the right to install the cameras.
An Airbnb I rented a few years ago had a dozen cameras inside the house. The owner revealed the cameras using a lowercase font at the bottom of the listing. Now I read the rental announcements very carefully and ask these questions before booking:
• What is the exact number of cameras and where are they located?
• Are the cameras recording?
• What happens to those registrations after my stay?
Airbnb allows security cameras or audio recorders in “public spaces” and “common spaces”. This means no bathrooms, bedrooms or other sleeping areas. For example, a camera or other monitoring device is not allowed if the living room has a sofa bed. Even hidden and hidden cameras are not allowed.
VRBO allows cameras and other surveillance devices only outside a property. The one exception: Smart devices that cannot be activated remotely. Guests must be informed and given the option to turn them off.
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But is it legal?
Laws on this sticky subject vary from state to state. The Federal Video Voyeurism Act states that you cannot “capture an image of an individual’s private area without their consent, and do so knowingly in circumstances where the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.” It is important to note that “private area” refers to nudity or minor states of dress.
Local and state laws usually 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 off-limits. In a situation where you rent a single room in a house or apartment, it becomes more complicated.
There is another caveat: it is illegal to register someone for blackmail or other malicious intent. Audio recording also has much stricter rules than video. In many states, both parties need to be aware that registration is pending.
If you are renting, check the list carefully for any mention of cameras. Regardless of whether you see a disclosure or not, it is your responsibility to check every single room upon arrival. I’ll show you how.
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How to locate surveillance cameras
Larger cameras are easy to spot, but anyone can easily hide smaller cameras behind furniture, vents, or decorations. An easy way to locate 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, looking for light reflections.
• Scan the room from multiple points so you don’t miss a camera that is only aimed at certain points.
• Inspect the vents and any holes or cracks in the walls or ceilings.
You can also get an RF detector. This gadget can detect wireless cameras that you may not see. Unfortunately, RF detectors are not ideal for wired or record-only cameras. For those, you’ll have to stick to the lens reflection method.
If you can connect to the rental’s wireless network, a free program like Wireless Network Watcher shows you which gadgets are connected. You may be able to locate connected cameras this way. I do this on every rental I stay in, just to double check what’s connected to the grid.
Note that the owner may have placed the cameras on a second network, or they may be wired or record-only, so this is not a foolproof option.
If a home automation system controls the rental property, cameras are relatively easy to find. Open the system controller menu and look for anything that mentions cameras. As a result, you can scan TV channels for anything suspicious. I found many cameras in a vacation rental this way.
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What to do if you find a camera
If you find an indoor surveillance camera that hasn’t been revealed to you, pick up the phone and call the police. Tell them that you have direct evidence that your landlord is spying on you inside your rented home without your knowledge or permission. Use this exact phrase.
Document the situation with videos and photos on your smartphone. If you are traveling with others, ask them to witness once the police arrive. Remind them that they too were going to be victims. Once you have the police report, contact the rental site.
This isn’t just a nuisance. It is a serious invasion of privacy.
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The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.