Sanity Check: People Don’t Spy Just Because

Once, I saw a Reddit post where someone asked something along the lines of “I’m moving into a new apartment soon, how can I check for hidden cameras?” While hidden cameras and sextortion are a real thing to be worried about, the nature of this particular concern raised a red flag in my head and I thought this might be a good topic for a sanity check. For those who are new, “sanity check” is a term coined by Michael Bazzell that basically means “step back, take a deep breath, and make sure you aren’t going too far overboard and negatively impacting yourself.

Why Do People Spy?

In a world where your washing machine wants to know your contacts and your TV wants to know your neighbor's WiFi SSID, it’s easy to fall into the idea of thinking that everyone is out to collect every single piece of information about you just because, but the fact is that these stories are the exception rather than the norm. News, by definition, is news because it’s unusual. We don’t print stories about the hundreds, thousands, or millions of commuters who made it home each night on their way home from work, only about the ones who didn’t (and honestly traffic collisions after work have become so common those don’t even really make it to print anymore).

That’s not to say that data collection itself is unusual. Just a quick look through the privacy labels on the top apps for Apple’s App Store show that excessive data collection is quite the norm. What I am saying is that none of these apps are collecting all that data “just because.” They have a reason. In some cases, the reason is justified: it’s to know what features are popular or detect and fix crashes. In most cases, the reasons are not: it’s to know more about you to serve you ads. But the point is that these apps aren’t sucking up every piece of information about you just because they have the technical ability, they’re doing it to because they plan to use that data in some form or fashion.

Deep Dive: Examining the Redditor’s Question

This brings us to the apartment question. “How can I check my new apartment for hidden cameras?” The Original Poster (OP) made no indication that they had any reason to suspect hidden cameras – they didn’t cite any sort of clause in the lease or any odd behavior out of the landlord. They simply took it as a given that because they were moving into a new apartment that there was a risk of hidden cameras. Now, as I said, there is certainly a risk here just as I risk getting struck by a car every time I go near a road, but the fallacy here is that OP was making the assertion that the risk existed simply because the capability was there. “I did not have access to this space prior, and everybody is spying all the time just because, therefore there might be cameras here.” The question OP failed to address was why there might be hidden cameras.

Let’s start by examining a common myth: most hidden cameras don’t transmit data unless they’re specially designed and relatively pricier. The key word here is “relatively.” A quick search on Amazon (I plan to shower after this post simply for even looking there) for “cloud cam” shows nanny cams that look like smoke detectors, external hard drives, or even ones that are the size of your fingernail and meant to be concealed that all can connect to your phone in real time or transmit data to a cloud server for review later and range in price from $40 to $200 USD. This is not terribly expensive. However, another search for “hidden camera SD card” shows the most expensive option at $40, and most of these are designed to be completely invisible and hidden inside something like an existing fire alarm or air vent. As a busy and underpaid housekeeping staff at a hotel, it would be faster and cheaper for me to buy one of these $20 cameras and stick it in a hidden place, then in between guest stays I can simply dump the footage and put it back, ready to record the next guest. Plus since most camera services wouldn’t be self-hosted or zero-knowledge, that means by using a cloud-based camera you run the risk of getting in trouble if the company sees your content – or more likely, having your data deleted because of violation of the Terms of Service. If you get caught and reported, the company could have copies of the evidence.

More important even than the cost is the scale. At a hotel, I can expect to see a new guest at a frequency ranging from every night to every week (on average), and I have dozens if not hundreds of rooms to pick from. I’m CERTAIN to get footage of an attractive, naked woman who checked in under her real name who I can then blackmail for money, which is almost always what these particular scams are about. And with dozens or even hundreds of hotel employees, even if you report the incident that’s a lot of time and resources spent trying to pin down exactly which employee planted the camera and took the footage. I don’t mean to inject my personal political opinions here but point blank: the cops don’t care and neither does the hotel. The cops don’t have the resources to investigate one rando’s grainy nudes and the hotel will simply fire the person they suspect – who can quickly move onto another job because of the high turnover of entry-level positions – and issue a stern warning to everyone else. Ultimately, the risk is worth it to some.

Now here’s the most important part, the question OP didn’t ask: “why would I find hidden cameras?” All that scale of a hotel scam falls apart when we’re talking about renting an apartment. Even putting aside the price of hidden cameras, you have one “room” with one (or a small few number of) guest(s) who stay for months or possibly years at a time. Not to mention you have a very limited number of people who have access to the space: the office staff and a couple maintenance guys if we’re talking about a corporate property. If we’re talking a private landlord, they’re probably the only person with consistent access. This means you’ve got one person (or a very small number of people) who can be easily blamed and reasonably sued and the odds of renting to that one person who’s worth blackmailing is almost nonexistent. You might get a dude (male nudes aren't typically highly sought after) or someone considered unattractive by conventional standards. Even if they are attractive, part of the effectiveness of the scam comes from the idea that I'll publish this footage attached to your real name, and if you're traveling you're likely a professional who doesn't want that showing up on a Google search. Renting a home to randos, your odds of finding that professional are also less common. If any landlord actually tried this scam, I’d laugh hysterically reading the article about their trial.

I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’ve read the Florida Man stories. Epic stupidity certainly exists. I’m just saying that we’ve now gone from the likelihood of “I might get hit by a car every time I get near a road” to “I might get attacked by a shark while visiting the aquarium.” The answer to the question “why would I find cameras” is “you probably wouldn’t.” You might argue that the landlord might place cameras to prove property damage, and sure that’s possible, but the risk just doesn’t seem worth it. They already have a lease saying you’re responsible for anything that happens to the property between the date you move in and the date you move out, there’s no need for cameras. Again, people don’t spy just because they can. That’s just time and money wasted on buying a camera, placing it, making the paperwork legal (or risking a lawsuit if they don’t), recovering and managing the data, etc. It’s easier just to take you to court and go “here’s the lease with their signature.”

The Larger Picture

Let me be clear: I don’t think OP was stupid to ask that question. I’m glad that they think outside the box and consider the possibilities and ask when they’re not sure. But the bigger idea I wanted to share with this story – and what I hope OP learned that day – was the title of this post: people don’t spy just because. There’s always a reason. Again, often that reason is invasive, but the moral I wanted to impart here is that next time you find yourself thinking some extreme threat model thoughts – like “what if a hacker takes over my car while it’s on the highway?” for example – take a moment to ask yourself “why would they go through all the trouble?” Sometimes the answer is “because there’s money to be made and it’s easy.” But sometimes, the risk and the work just isn’t worth it. Again, surveillance is real and common and ubiquitous and far too overreaching. But when it comes to the high-level stuff, remember: people don’t spy just because.

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