By: Margarita Gorospé
Use of surveillance technologies within Airbnb properties is not a new phenomenon. However, in December 2019, Airbnb announced an update to their company policies. The update focused on trust, and the new official ban on “party houses”, which refers to the use of rental properties as house party venues. The update also included ways the company hopes to combat safety and hosts’ concerns, including a “Neighborhood Support” initiative, and the new discount program for smart home technology devices. Risks and concerns regarding these initiatives, specifically the use of smart home technology, must be balanced with the considerable benefits they afford to the platform users – hosts and guests alike.
Following this December announcement, an email from Airbnb was recently sent out in February 2020 to hosts, which touted the platform’s discounts on three optional surveillance devices hosts could use in their rented out properties – Minut, NoiseAware, and Roomonitor.
Minut allows homeowners to remotely monitor the maintenance of the property, including noise, temperature, motion, and humidity. The device allows homeowners to set a threshold noise level and does not need an outlet. NoiseAware alerts homeowners of “sustained noise levels”, and considers excessive noise to be “a leading indicator of property misuse”. The website boasts that it is the only home device with a “microphone that does not record audio”. Finally, Roomonitor allows homeowners to be aware of the property’s noise levels all day through analyzed noise patterns, with real time access. All three of these devices claim to not have the ability to record.
These new technologies, which allow “smart” monitoring without recording capabilities, pose many questions. However, one significant question that is often at the center of smart technology use does stand out – do these devices finally strike a compromise between privacy concerns and safety concerns?
On the one hand, many Airbnb guests are often shocked whenever they inadvertently discover a recording device in their rental. Renters reacted with anger, confusion or disgust. Use of a hidden camera in a hotel-like space or other short-term rental is still unsettling, despite knowing it is someone else’s property. It is a temporary home, where most people expect a level of privacy at least somewhat close to what they would expect in their own home. Guests often feel violated when intimate moments are captured for homeowners to watch.
On the other hand, the homeowner who chooses to rent out their property for visitors has true ownership. Homeowners desire to maintain the value of their properties, wish to keep good relationships with their neighbors, aim to maintain a safe environment within their home, and want to ensure that their properties avoid damage. When they choose to stay off-site after guests arrive, they are placing their assets and trust in the hands of complete strangers. Anything can happen to their property without their watchful eye, including shootings, such as the ones reported in California and Canada. Finding a way to monitor their home while they are not physically present allows homeowners to have peace of mind about leaving their property to strangers, and also allows them to act swiftly if any unusual or impermissible activity is occurring.
Enter Minut, NoiseAware, and Roomonitor, with promises of monitoring abilities while limiting privacy intrusion.
Will the use of these devices help move private surveillance technology use in the right direction? First, such use completely gets rid of any facial recognition problems, an area rife with questions of bias and mistaken identity. Second, the devices claim to only monitor certain conditions, which significantly limits the scope of information being analyzed by the device. None of these devices have video features, which gives guests some level of anonymity. Third, the lack of recording capabilities allow for another layer of privacy by providing a lighter touch on accessible information.
Without recordings, the homeowner can only use live streaming or can only access compiled data. This may be a good thing. After all, recordings allow for unnecessary inspections, and require some method of storing information about a target person in a way that he or she may not know about. Instead, the devices limit homeowners to glimpses and summaries, not “on-demand” watching.
While there are certain benefits to this technology, potential risks inevitably come along. Recording capabilities do serve important functions, and without them, there are less ways to determine context. For example, will a device that alerts homeowners of sustained noise levels ignore the sound of a single gunshot? What if the homeowner chose a significantly low noise threshold on his or her Minut device, resulting in an alert if guests end up having animated and lively conversation? Finally, what if information on any of these devices could be used to provide evidence for or against a claim between the homeowner and guest, but since a full recording is non-existent, the court is stuck with a limited number or dataset? A single spike in noise chart can mean anything, and without a full recording, there is little to nothing that can be used to prove assertions.
Other concerns center around how the data is stored and handled. These devices may not have recording capabilities, but they do collect data for analysis and reports presented on the devices’ respective applications. How exactly is this information compiled and where does it store this information prior to the creation of the analysis or report?
Finally, laws and policies concerning surveillance devices center on notice. Airbnb states that hosts must disclose the presence of a recording device within the home and disclose any active monitoring, and places little to no restrictions thereafter, as long as the devices are not placed in bathrooms or similar intimate areas. There are no federal video or audio recording laws that would be applicable in these instances, so these devices are likely going to be regulated by state laws. However, it appears that the legal status of these three specific devices is unclear. While it is a tamer version of Ring or Nest, it is also a more watchful version of traditional home alarm systems. They act more like sensor devices, but still have information collecting capabilities. However, none of that information is recorded in the same way other popular home surveillance devices record footage or audio – there are no playback features, just charted data. Since most laws concerning surveillance devices center on the “recording” aspect, questions remain about regulation when a device significantly waters down collected information to near anonymity.
There are still many unknown factors when it comes to finding the balance between privacy and safety. Devices such as Minut, NoiseAware, and Roomonitor may be attempting to consciously find that balance, and if so, such innovation may help provide future initiatives with important lessons.