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Increasingly cheap security cameras are moving into all sorts of places and hosts are installing them in some rental properties  – as a guest at an Airbnb property discovered to his shock recently.

Jeffrey Bigham, a computer science professor at a US university, has posted on his blog a recent experience when he rented an Airbnb with his family.

While staying there, Bigham noticed two white objects in the US rental property’s lounge room. He realised it was a security camera.

“I was shocked, and immediately unplugged them,” he wrote in a blog post.

Bigham says the rental property informed him that there were cameras “at the entrance” – but that’s not where he found them.

More disturbingly, when he reported his findings to Airbnb, Bigham says the platform initially told him that the hosts had properly disclosed the camera to him, because they had shown it in a photo in the listing. It is shown – but it is very small, on the wall in the left corner.

You can read Bigham’s blog page and see the photo here.

So when does a camera constitute legitimate security and when is it an invasion of privacy? If it’s in a bedroom or bathroom, most people would regard that as peeking or prying, an invasion of privacy.

Courts would likely take a dim view of it – as they did in New Zealand three months ago. There, a former prison officer and Airbnb host who filmed women in the shower at his homestay and uploaded the videos to a porn site is now facing rather different views – having been jailed for four years and four months. See: Shampoo peeping Airbnb host peers through prison bars

Obviously that was a weird and unusual case.

As far as general surveillance goes, according to Bigham: “If you find a truly hidden camera in your bedroom or bathroom, AirBnB will support you. If you find an undisclosed camera in the private living room, AirBnB will not support you.”

However, Airbnb has now made a U-turn on the issue, apologised to Bigham and given him a refund. US news site Fast Company reports that an Airbnb spokesperson in the US provided the following statement:

Our community’s privacy and safety is our priority, and our original handling of this incident did not meet the high standards we set for ourselves. We have apologized to Mr. Bigham and fully refunded him for his stay. We require hosts to clearly disclose any security cameras in writing on their listings and we have strict standards governing surveillance devices in listings.  This host has been removed from our community.

Not all security cameras are as obvious as the one shown above

So, Airbnb aside, what’s the legal situation in Australia when it comes to security cameras? Put simply, it’s complex. It varies from state to state, and some of the legislation was framed originally with listening devices in mind, later expanded to cameras.

The Australian Information Commissioner notes: “Surveillance cameras operated by individuals are not covered by the Privacy Act 1988, but they may be covered by State or Territory law, and the police may be able to help you for very serious matters.

“State laws generally regulate the installation and use of CCTV. You can contact the Attorney General’s Department in your state or territory for more information on your state or territory’s surveillance and monitoring laws.”

An overview of some aspects of state laws can be found here. It’s a general guide and does not constitute, and should be not relied on as, legal advice.

Written by Peter Needham