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Am I being spied on? How to detect hidden cameras

Have you ever wondered if you were being recorded while staying in a hotel or vacation rental? If so, there's a small chance those concerns may have been true. Let's look at a few things you can do next time you travel to help mitigate those concerns.
surveillance cameras

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What is happening?

A recent article highlighted a story about a family who checked into an Airbnb rental in Cork, Ireland, only to find a hidden camera in the smoke detector.

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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.”

In another story, a man named Max Vest rented a Miami Airbnb in January 2019 and had a similar discovery. At about 8 or 9 p.m., he went out for dinner; by the time he got home, his hosts had gone to bed in the room adjacent to his, and he prepared to do the same.

That was when he saw the light. Two small, black, rectangular boxes were stacked next to an outlet on the far side of the guest room, both facing the bed. From afar, they looked like phone chargers. But when Vest got closer, he realized they were cameras, and they were recording.

He quickly got dressed, grabbed his belongings, and pocketed the cameras’ memory cards as evidence. Then panic set in: It was almost midnight, and he was alone in the home of someone whose name he didn’t even know, apparently being recorded. What’s more, his host could have been watching as he discovered the cameras.

In another Airbnb incident, Jeff Bigham discovered cameras in his rental that he says were never disclosed. After he reached out to the Trust & Safety team at Airbnb, representatives told him he and his family had, in fact, consented to the cameras because they were visibly displayed in photos on the listing. After Bigham’s blog post on the ordeal went viral, Airbnb apologized and refunded his money.

An article on CBS News mentions a 22-year-old from Washington State who discovered a cell phone under the sink of the rental they were staying at. It was recording when it was discovered. Shortly thereafter, an iPad was also discovered, which was also recording.

These types of stories seemed to be repeated time and time throughout 2019. Cameras were found in hotels from Tehri, India to Cape Cod, Massachusetts and from Zhengzhou, China to San Francisco and Minneapolis.

In South Korea, a crime ring was busted after secretly filming and live-streaming the actions of over 1,600 hotel guests in nearly 4 dozen rooms at 30 hotels, according to reports by CNN, the BBC, and The Korea Herald newspaper.

A 2019 survey by IPX1031 found that 58% of participants were worried about hidden cameras inside Airbnbs, and 11% of them actually say they found a hidden camera inside an Airbnb property before.

The odds may even be higher when you begin to travel internationally. There are some countries where privacy laws are lax and state-sponsored spying is commonplace.

How to find a hidden camera

According to “The Monk” (a made-up name due to the sensitive nature of his work), who is a technical surveillance countermeasures and intelligence expert from Advanced Operational Concepts, “there are essentially three primary methods for checking for a hidden camera: scanning of radio frequencies, lens detection, and physical search.”

Physical Search

Check objects in the room, specifically those that are pointed in suspicious directions like towards the bed, in the bathroom, facing computer work areas, etc. They typically need a clear and unobstructed line of sight to video properly. This may cause them to be awkwardly positioned.

Think of electronic devices such as alarm clocks, smoke detectors, etc. However, don’t be limited to electronic devices alone. Pretty much anything can be used to conceal a camera. Keep an eye out for random wires or wires that lead nowhere or have no logical use.

alarm clock

Devices such as Amazon Cloud Cam or Nest Cam are easy to locate and discover. Despite newer and better technology, some devices still emit a slight sound, which can be detected. However, not all things are easy to identify. Keep in mind, there are probably a variety of legitimate electronics in the house, hotel, motel, etc., that make noise.

Physical search can be very effective, but it is also time-consuming and can require a lot of work. Think about it, it takes time and effort to check plugs, outlets, smoke detectors, alarm clocks, etc. These activities are also very intrusive in regards to the location you are staying, but to perform a thorough search you will need to do all these things and more.

There are very few reasons a “normal” person with no reason would need to perform a thorough physical search of this nature. But hey, who am I to judge.

Lens Detection

If you want to utilize lens detection, you will probably need some practice, patience, and a little luck. In a nutshell, you are using your naked eye, darkness (turn off the lights), and a light source like a flashlight, to locate reflections, glints, or glimmers of light. Stay away from your 1,000-lumen lightsaber. A flashlight that bright will defeat the purpose. A small utility light will work great for this purpose.

According to Monk, lens detection is very effective if used properly, but it requires patience and proper technique. If you are too far from the lens, sweep the room too quickly, or are just standing at the wrong angle from the lens, then you’ll likely miss seeing the lens when it reflects the light from your own light source.

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Detection Equipment

cell phone rf detection

There are a lot of options when it comes to commercial RF detectors, which are readily available and most less than $100. However, no single method is going to be 100 percent accurate. “RF scanning, for example, will only help in identifying a device if that device is actively transmitting. If the data is transmitted only at intervals, then an RF scanner will be fairly useless.”

However, if the devices are using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to transmit or receive, an RF Scanner may be a good option. Keep in mind, if the device is simply recording and is not sending or receiving, you are out of luck.

What about using your smartphone’s camera? This is an option as well. An article on How-to Geek describes how you can use your phone as an option to help detect hidden surveillance cameras. There are basically two ways to scan for cameras with your phone.

Scan Network

First, if you have access, you can scan the Wi-Fi network for devices that look like cameras. But this will only find cameras connected to the network.

Scanning for networked cameras is one of the options they recommend, and you can use this to your advantage with an app named Fing. As with most apps, Fing does ask you to sign in for more features, but you won’t need to do that for the device and port scanning.

The objective here is to take a look at all the devices on the local network. They recommend disconnecting all your devices, except for the one running Fing, so there will be fewer to sort. Connect your device to the network, open the app, and get to work.

Infrared Detection

Your second option is to search for night vision cameras using your cell phone’s camera. If a hidden camera isn’t connected to the network and doesn’t have night-vision capabilities, neither method will spot it. However, these techniques should spot most cameras.

What if you don’t have access to utilize the techniques above, or what if they didn’t work? If you haven’t had any luck, you should try searching for infrared lights. Most IP cameras use infrared for night vision. While we can see infrared rays with our bare eyes, we typically have the option of using our smartphone.

Some smartphones have filters to block out infrared light on their primary camera, but very few of them have filters on the front camera. To determine which camera will work for you, grab an infrared remote like the one you use for your TV. Point it at your smartphone’s primary camera and press a button. If you see the light on the screen, then it can detect infrared. If you don’t, try again with the front-facing camera.

Once you figure out which camera to use, turn off the lights to begin your sweep. Then turn on your smartphone’s camera (the one identified as being able to detect infrared rays) and start looking for any glowing lights.

IP cameras don’t come in any standard configuration so you might see just one, four, six, or some other combination of lights. They’ll typically be purple but sometimes can look white. Keep in mind, you don’t necessarily need to be really close to the camera.

Things to consider

chinese flag

What happens if you find a camera or other device? If you are in a position where you feel the need to search for hidden cameras or microphones, you probably need to have a plan of what to do if you find something. Think this through ahead of time so you are not stuck with a deer in the headlights moment.

Another thing to think about is what happens if you are searching for these devices and are observed by the culprit? I can’t say this has ever happened, but it is within the realm of possibility. If you suspect something and your fears are confirmed, there is a chance you were observed while performing the search. It is something to think about.

One other issue, which is a big one, is related to the countries where you are more than likely being spied on? Yes, there are places in the world where the governments can and will be spying on you. If you perform any type of countermeasures and are detected, you could get in a jam. It may even be illegal to do. You better have good reason to be engaged in this type of behavior, and for most folks, this won’t be the case.

SMARTERTRAVEL agrees with this sentiment. Mike O’Rourke, a former Special Forces soldier and Green Beret and current CEO of Advanced Operational Concepts, advises: “In certain countries (Russia and China top the list), it is highly likely the government intelligence services actively monitor hotels frequented by business travelers.

Anyone they observe using search techniques to find hidden devices in their accommodations is likely to be branded as a hostile intelligence operative and treated accordingly. Bringing even the least expensive search devices into these countries is likely to land the traveler in hot water, sometimes before even leaving the airport.”

Conclusion

While there are people out there with the means and desire to spy on you during your travels, it is not very common. In fact, it’s probably not something you should ever worry about. However, there are folks who are concerned with privacy or have other reasons to be concerned.

If this is the case, hopefully, you find some use in this article. If anything, maybe you picked up some new knowledge even though this article is very basic in nature.

Remember, knowledge is power and if anything you can impress some people using the old “RF detection with the cellphone” trick.

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