Monday, 12 November 2012

On rescuing a tourist from a house of hidden cameras

It sounds like a schizophrenic nightmare, but I did help out a tourist last weekend who was looking for a safe place to stay, after she realised her former host was secretly filming her in his flat.

I’m actually hoping it will raise thoughts about the market in voyeuristic images, which the law might be struggling to catch up with. 

I met this worried girl out of the blue in person, after joining a website called ‘’, which bears the tagline that ‘CouchSurfing helps you meet and adventure with new friends around the world!’

For those that don’t know about it already, this is fairly similar to hitch-hiking, but with sofas. You host people for free on your couch - you can also find people via the site who will host you. The idea is that nobody earns anything through doing it... it's friendly...

Last Saturday I received this message from a guy in Las Vegas: ‘Please help my girlfriend!’ he said, clearly distressed. His girlfriend had just discovered the man hosting her in London was secretly filming her.  There was one camera in the bathroom, and one focused on the couch where she was sleeping.

To me, it sounded like the plot of some scary thriller. Her boyfriend agreed: ‘I'm going to be so relieved once she's outa there'

I met the girl (I'm always slightly surprised to find out that people I've met online are actually real) and we got along great. I decided to host her for the weekend. She decided to file a police report and I accompanied her. Most unsettling to everybody was the picture she'd taken in the host’s bathroom, of a WiFi camera that he had hidden behind some toiletries. She explained that it was pointing at the mirror, which was pointing at the shower.

In light of her crisis I’ve scrutinised's safety policies anew. Similar to facebook, anybody can register for the site. They send one another ‘couch-requests’.  After they’ve met, they write either 'positive', 'neutral' or 'negative' references, which appear on the user’s profile. Sometimes, they send them friend-requests.

For a fee you can be ‘verified’, which means a postcard with a code sent to your address. It ensures that CS has verified your identity. 

You can also ‘vouch’ for a friend, on the condition that you have genuinely met them face-to-face and trust them thoroughly. 

Once somebody has been vouched for three times on the site they're regarded as officially vouched for. I hope it weeds out psychopaths. But I warned some couch-surfers who were contacting me about the creepy story I'd just heard. Since then, my guest and a couple of other surfers have described ‘awkward’ or creepy experiences with the occasional host who isn't what they claim to be. This isn't the only voyeur that has been found out via the site. One guy was rumbled, apparently, for secretly filming couples he’d invited to stay in his house. 

It's hard to know what sort of crime you'd categorise these uncomfortable actions as, except to say that they're wrong. Invasion of privacy? Sexual harrassment? Anybody who knows the legal position on voyeurism, feel free to share it, as from a layman's perspective, the boundaries appear to be quite blurry. After all, a photographer in France took a picture of of Kate Middleton's topless sunbathing as part of his everyday job, which is concerning when you think about it.

Of course there's also voyeurism between people who already know one another offline... I've heard tell of at least one person who secretly films sex with their partners (yuck). There's another who sends out vicious tweets publicly boasting about their exploits. 

... I suppose I should balance the tide I've started here by saying that the website isn't (necessarily) a cesspit. I've met extremely bighearted people via the site. The other couchsurfer who stayed with us had taken all kinds of risks, hitchhiked all over Europe and used couchsurfing a lot, but still had entirely positive, life-affirming experiences...

Just, stay frosty. A heads-up, naturally.