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Travel has always come with risks. We've been taught to fear pickpockets and tainted alcohol, and skip tepid street-food meats. A recent viral TikTok post is reminding travelers of another potential threat: hidden cameras.
The video comes from Marcus Hutchins, a British hacker perhaps best known for stopping the spread of a global computer virus. He's amassed nearly 240,000 followers for posting videos about bypassing firewalls and keyless-car hacking.
His video on spotting hidden cameras in hotels and Airbnbs details various ways someone could plant secret recording devices around a normal bedroom.
"Take this fire alarm for instance, it is placed right above the bed," Hutchins said in the video. "Now one way to see if the device is a camera is to shine a bright light at it. If you hit a camera lens it's going to get a blue-ish reflection."
Hutchins told The Washington Post via email that he's never encountered hidden cameras while traveling, but that a few commenters said it had happened to them. As for if he uses the techniques himself, "I only check if I have a suspicion there might be cameras," Hutchins said.
The post, now with 3 million likes, is unnerving. But how concerned should we be about hidden cameras in our accommodations? Should we be checking every room we stay in when traveling? We asked security experts.
"There are so many other things that are bigger threats than cameras," said Michael O'Rourke, chief executive of Advanced Operational Concepts, a global security consultancy that executes travel risk assessment and management.
Airbnb declined to provide a comment on the TikTok, but said incidents involving hidden cameras are rare.
However, it does happen.
For example, in 2019, police in South Korea discovered cameras inside TV boxes, wall outlets and hair dryer stands that had live-streamed approximately 1,600 guests in their hotel rooms. Later that year, a couple filed a lawsuit against a San Diego Airbnb owner who allegedly hid cameras inside small holes of the bathroom and the bedroom ceiling. The examples go on.
There are exceptions, though, for when cameras inside a vacation rental can make sense, like if an owner wants to protect their property from criminal activity, says Kenneth Bombace, chief executive of Global Threat Solutions, an investigative and intelligence firm that offers travel protection services.
As a result of the proliferation of personal surveillance, companies like Airbnb and VRBO have rules for guests and hosts on when recording devices are appropriate.
In an Airbnb "Community Standards" section regarding security, it's stated that: "You should not spy on other people; cameras are not allowed in your listing unless they are previously disclosed and visible, and they are never permitted in private spaces (such as bathrooms or sleeping areas)."
"And by the way, it's not just for the host," Bombace said. "They also have rules regarding the guests who have placed cameras recording their host."
Airbnb encourages guests to read Airbnb listings for details on security cameras located at a property.
If you are concerned about your privacy traveling - even if the odds of voyeurism are low - here's advice from security experts on what you can do to protect yourself.
Do a 'common sense' scan of your accommodation
On arrival at your accommodation, Bombace recommends going through what he calls "common sense procedures" in the private areas, like the bedroom and bathroom. He says to pay attention to smoke detectors, radios, outlets and any flashing lights.
When O'Rourke gets to his hotel room or vacation rental, he starts with unplugging the bedside alarm and putting it inside of a drawer, or throwing a towel on top of it. Next, "the places to worry about, especially in a hotel, is anything that would have a view of the bed, or a view of the bathroom," he said.
O'Rourke also covers up any peepholes in doors, and throws a towel across the bottom of outside-facing doorways to prevent under-the-door cameras.
In Hutchins's video, he recommends shining a light onto any surfaces to expose things unseen to the naked eye, like a camera hidden inside an alarm clock face or a two-way mirror.
Hutchins also says travelers can turn off lights in their room, and use the front-facing camera on their smartphones to look for infrared LEDs used in night-vision cameras. If you'd like to test the trick ahead of your travels, O'Rourke says you can practice on your TV remote.
Jeremy Prout, director of security solutions at the medical and travel security firm International SOS, is wary of such tactics. If you're not trained in Technical Surveillance Countermeasures (TSCM), your odds of successfully finding infrared clues are low.
"And if you do see something, how do you know that it's accurate?" Prout said.
His tip for travelers is to assess the room from the perspective of your "adversary." As O'Rourke suggested as well, do a quick scan of private areas for the best line of sight and angles a voyeur would be interested in, then look for any small holes or items that seem out of place. Are there two smoke detectors on the bedroom ceiling? Is a clock radio oddly situated?
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Scan WiFi networks for suspicious devices
One family discovered a hidden camera at their Airbnb in Ireland when the father, Andrew Barker, connected his phone to the WiFi network and saw a device labeled "IP camera."
Barker has since gone on to write a blog post on that includes a detailed breakdown of exactly how he used Network Scanner and Network Mapper to uncover the covert camera. He also recommends using tools like Angry IP Scanner to look for suspicious devices connected to an accommodation's WiFi. Fing is another app to do the job.
Prout says it's good to understand what's on a host's network, however, it's not foolproof. A host may have changed the name of his camera device, or may not have a camera hooked up to WiFi in the first place.
O'Rourke thinks the average traveler may not have the tech-savvy background to benefit from this technique, but there's no harm in trying.
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Turn off the WiFi altogether
Thomas Ham, founder of the professional TSCM company Spy Catchers, told Fox31 Denver that travelers can opt to turn off an accommodation's WiFi and router on arrival. Should the host give you a call about the issue, you can ask about whether there are any cameras in the property that weren't disclosed in the listing.
Prout doesn't go out of his way to make any changes to the room. If you're scanning the room for infrared cameras or putting electrical tape over any cameras, "that's a lot to me," he says.
As for turning off the WiFi, "I don't think that it's much of a good get as far as a tip to see if there's an internal camera," Prout said. Your host may need WiFi to keep a disclosed front-door camera functioning to protect packages, or make sure guests are following the terms of their rental agreement (not throwing parties, not bringing pets, etc.). If you're staying at a shared Airbnb, turning off the WiFi won't be an option, either.
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Practice keeping situational awareness
If you're anxious about privacy and safety traveling, Prout recommends choosing an accommodation more carefully to begin with, saving yourself at least some stress. Avoid vacation rentals that don't have reviews.
"Take a look at who stayed there before, what the feedback is," he said. "If you are in the boat of having these concerns, you want to stay in an Airbnb that has a lot of stays historically."
Prout says in general, situational awareness is critical. Remember to look up from your phone and pay attention to anything that feels off. That may be tough as you're traveling when you're unfamiliar with your surroundings.
"We always need to be aware that our baseline is degraded because we are in a new spot," Prout said. "We don't see those anomalies as often as we should."
O'Rourke says he's in the habit of going through his standard operating procedures for accommodation safety every time he travels, even if he's not in a particularly threatening environment. It's part of developing and maintaining a muscle memory for situational awareness.
"It's not paranoia; it's relaxed alertness," he said.