The travel cautionary is nothing new. Travellers are warned to beware street food, don’t drink water from the taps and always check a cabby’s licence before hopping in, or be prepared to be taken for a ride.
Even Baedeker’s guides warned against pickpockets in the Alps. Saying that gullible tourists with too much money and too little guile had been a “pernicious influence on the morals of the valley”.
However, there’s a very 21st century which might not be on your radar: hidden cameras.
A TikTok video teaching travellers to identify hidden cameras in hotel rooms has exposed just how easily disguised they might be. The video by UK backpacker and cyber security expert, Marcus Hutchins has amassed 20 million views.
Usually supplying tech tips to his quarter-million followers on subjects such as the perils of hacking electric cars, the travel hack was new territory for him.
In a nondescript hotel room he quickly identifies hidden lenses in places as unassuming a plug socket, alarm clock and the fire detector.
“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,” he says.
While he says he doesn’t usually check his room for bugs, he has been contacted by viewers who have made uncomfortable discoveries in Airbnbs.
“I only check if I have a suspicion there might be cameras,” he told the Washington Post.
It’s sensational stuff, but how worried should we be? When is it fair to assume that you’re being watched and the walls have eyes?
This depends where you are. In 2017 South Korea declared it had a spy camera epidemic, with 6400 people reporting incidents of illegal filming. Seoul’s Metropolitan Police established a special branch dedicated to checking hotels and public toilets for hidden cameras.
In 2019 they exposed a crime ring which had captured images of over 1600 guests in motel rooms across Korea, reported CNN.
It is a problem not confined to South Korea. The same year a Kiwi family on holiday in Ireland discovered a camera in their Bantry BnB. Spotting a strange Wifi network called “IP Camera”, the tech-savvy parents were able to hack into device.
To their horror they picked up a video feed and there they were, being filmed from the smoke detector.
They worried most visitors would not have found the camera.
You're on TV: Kiwi family the Barkers detected a hidden camera in their BnB in Ireland. Photo / Supplied
“Andy hacked the live-feed and called the owner to ask what the fudge sticks was going on,” they wrote to the family blog.
At the time a spokesperson for Airbnb told the Herald that they “strictly prohibit cameras in listings and we take reports of any violations extremely seriously.”
Currently terms of service specifically forbid hidden surveillance on properties.
“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).”
How to spot a hidden camera
Hutchin’s video recommended scanning suspicious devices with a torch or cell-phone light. You should be able to detect reflected light off small lenses not easily seen by the naked eye.
If you turn the lights off and use the front facing camera on your mobile device, you can often detect infra-red beacons or LEDs – as these are needed for night vision cameras.
Like the Barkers, if you are in a remote BnB and notice a strange Wifi network, check it out.
You can locate the area of wifi devices using software such as Network Scanner and Mapper apps. It’s possibly a little overkill, however you can never be to sure.
If in doubt, turn the Wifi off all together.
A digital detox is the best way to avoid any 21-century snooping.