The Barker family was settling into their Airbnb in Cork, Ireland, another stop on their 14-month trek around Europe, when they discovered something disturbing.
On the ceiling in the living room, hidden inside a detector, was a camera.
“We have encountered lots of weird and wonderful things and like to think we take most things in our stride,” Nealie Barker told New Zealand’s Stuff. “However this was shocking.”
The family, residents of New Zealand, said it confronted the homeowner and complained to Airbnb, setting off a month-long saga with the company that has drawn international attention. Just this week, after 33 days and stays from 10 other “unsuspecting” guests, Airbnb removed the listing and problematic host, Barker wrote on Facebook.
“The safety and privacy of our community is our priority,” Airbnb said in a statement Saturday. “Airbnb policies strictly prohibit hidden cameras in listings and we take reports of any violations extremely seriously. We have removed the host from our platform. Our original handling of this incident did not meet the high standards we set for ourselves, and we have apologized to the family and fully refunded their stay. There have been over half a billion guest arrivals in Airbnb listings to date and negative incidents are incredibly rare.”
The Barkers, a crew of two adults and five children, only found the camera because Nealie Barker’s husband, Andrew, works in IT. He connected his phone to the WiFi network and noticed a device labeled “IP camera,” Stuff reported.
“He scanned that device’s ports and found the live video feed,” Nealie Barker told Stuff. “We were all watching ourselves on his mobile phone.”
Next, Andrew Barker called the owner to “ask what the fudge sticks was going on,” Nealie Barker wrote on the family blog. The host hung up, Barker told CNN. He later called back and said there was only one camera in the home, the one the family had already discovered. “We didn’t feel relieved by that,” Barker told CNN.
“There is no way to know whether the camera was recording,” she told Stuff. “We asked the host but he refused to answer. We also asked if it was recording audio, again he refused to answer.”
The family relocated to a hotel and notified Airbnb the next day, but the investigation the company promised did not meet their expectations, Barker said in her Facebook post. Two weeks later, Barker wrote that the company had “exonerated” the host and returned the listing online.
Barker claims Airbnb did not permanently ban the alleged bad actor until the family reported the incident on social media. She told Stuff the investigation process was “hopeless” and involved a “total lack of transparency.”
In her Facebook post, Barker called on Airbnb to better vet hosts, to improve transparency around investigations and to adopt a “no-tolerance” policy around hidden cameras.
According to its standards and expectations, Airbnb requires that hosts disclose all rules for electronic surveillance devices in their listings. Additionally, devices are banned in private areas such as bathrooms and bedrooms, even if they are disclosed.
Hosts must disclose to guests if they are actively recording, according to the rules. If they do not, or if guests are informed after they book the listing, Airbnb permits cancellations and refunds. The policy states that Airbnb hosts might face cancellation penalties.
In 2018, Airbnb added another feature to bookings. If hosts indicate there are cameras on site, the feature flags their location and prompts guests to click an “agree” box — ensuring they’ve been alerted to the recording devices, the Atlantic reported last month.
In its reporting into Airbnb’s camera policies, the Atlantic said, “four guests who found cameras in their rentals told The Atlantic the company has inconsistently applied its own rules when investigating their claims.”
The company told the Atlantic that it tries to filter out predatory hosts by matching their names against sex-offender and felony databases. If a guest flags a problem, the company said, new accommodations are provided and an investigation is opened.
An Airbnb representative told the Atlantic that they take “reports of privacy violations very seriously.”
In interviews, the Barker family has made clear that they love the service Airbnb provides and plan to continue using the platform to book accommodations on their travels. When they spoke to CNN this week, the family had moved beyond Ireland and were adventuring in Budapest.
But Nealie Barker told CNN they’ve “become much more cautious.” Her husband wrote a post on their travel blog with instructions for finding hidden monitoring devices.
“We think people need to realize that the travel market is largely unregulated and if you would take issue with being filmed, then you need to take all steps properly,” Nealie Barker told CNN.