There Might Be Secret Surveillance Equipment in Your Vacation Rental

Courtney Linder
Photo credit: Future Publishing - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are looking for ways to help travelers detect surveillance technology in their vacation rental units.
  • It turns out most of the people involved in the study would like to see IoT devices adopt light and sound indicators to establish their presence.
  • They published their results in the Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

You probably don't have a lavish getaway planned any time soon—for obvious reasons—but whenever you do travel again, you might have one more threat to worry about: vacation spies.

A 2019 study by financial services firm IPX1031 revealed that in a survey of 2,000 American travelers, 58 percent were worried that their rental host had hidden surveillance equipment installed, and it turned out 11 percent of respondents said they actually have found a hidden camera in one of their rentals in the past. In some cases, travelers even found cameras pointed at bathrooms, where people commonly undress.

"People really want to know the location of IoT devices in unfamiliar environments," Jason Hong, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, said in a prepared statement. "But we lack the effective approaches to do so."

So Hong and his colleagues from Xi'an Jiaotong University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign put together a study to explore various ways that Internet-of-Things (IoT) manufacturers can implement physical interventions to help people identify anything from Ring home security cameras to webcams and voice assistants like Alexa or Google Home.

The scientists published their findings earlier this year in the Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Hong and his team focused on the concept of "locators" in their research. These are basically feedback mechanisms that people can use to physically locate IoT devices that aren't in plain sight. They focused on three potential locator designs:

1) Placing LED lights on a device;

2) Placing an LED light, and a beeping mechanism on the device; and

3) A contextualized photo, showing the device in its place, as taken by the hospitality host.

Participants quickly located the IoT devices—in a matter of seconds, rather than minutes—when the researchers used these locator designs, compared to a control of no locator designs at all. About two-thirds of the participants preferred the design that included both an LED light plus a beeping mechanism.

Photo credit: Image courtesy of the researchers

To build the prototypes, the scientists used an LED diode, a mini speaker, and a WiFi module to connect between the IoT devices and an Android app they designed. In theory, the idea is that a customer would be able to use an app to find all of the devices in their rental or hotel by tapping buttons to set off the beep mechanism or LED light.

Or, in the case of a contextualized picture, they could access a schematic of the room and where the devices are, or pictures of the actual room with IoT devices clearly marked.

Still, this is just early proof-of-concept work to illustrate that the public actually does want added security protocols to identify surveillance tech while renting a stranger's home or staying at a hotel. And, as the researchers note in their paper, "we assumed that IoT manufacturers would want to (or would be required to) include locator mechanisms as part of their devices to make it easier to find those devices."

There's already some proof that companies are willing to update their devices to give customers peace of mind. Laptop manufacturers include built-in LED lights to show when webcams are actively running, users can no longer turn off Google Nest camera lights, and in Korea, smartphone cameras must make a shutter sound.

"As such, we feel this is a reasonable assumption and manufacturers have the ability to change policies and adopt new features," the researchers note.

But in the meantime, you can use a Bluetooth scanner app like this one on the Google Play market for Android, or this one on the App Store for iOS devices. As long as the IoT devices aren't in Airplane Mode, you should be able to at least detect their presence nearby, giving you some sort of idea about what you're up against.

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