Security Risks May Change Airbnb, But Won't Destroy It

In the future, the shared economy will rely less on trusting complete strangers and more on extended social networks and digital trails

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Certain crooks are just asking for extra karmic retribution: the ones I've always held in special contempt are surfboard thieves, party crashers who stole those big black books of CDs in the days when they held someone's entire music collection, and con-men who prey on the elderly. It's a list I seldom update, but this week, having heard that crooks are renting apartments on Airbnb and stealing from their landlords, I've added a new circle to my made up version of hell. Isn't it awful? These people are doing damage to a happy community that improves life for so many.

For those who don't know Airbnb, it is the vagabond's delightful alternative to an expensive hotel, or a crappy motel, or inconveniencing friends, or taking one's chances on a Craigslist sublet. On several occasions, my girlfriend and I have made use of its services. Once we spent a night in the spare bedroom of a San Francisco apartment, rented to us by a lovely woman with whom we chatted for a half hour when she gave us her keys. It was clean, comfy, cheap, and located in the heart of The Mission, near the apartment of friends we normally stay with but who had other house guests that weekend.

One security feature seems like a big game-changer going forward: Lots of folks on Airbnb are connecting their profiles to their Facebook account.

Last fall, hoping to sublet a place for a couple months somewhere on the California coast, we searched the Airbnb offerings and found a dream deal: a house in a redwood forest just a few minutes walk from picturesque bluffs and a sandy, kelp strewn beach. It was cheaper than renting a small apartment in L.A. or San Francisco, and we spent six blissful weeks there. We're going back this autumn. And even as I write this post, I am sitting in a Portland, Oregon, backyard, next to the herb garden that my landlord for two weeks has just given me license to harvest. We're here for a wedding, and these digs are better and cheaper than any decent hotel.

Put simply, Airbnb has frequently made my life better.

But as my colleague noted, its success means that "it's no longer just graphic designers in Carroll Gardens sharing apartments with associate editors in Oakland. And several apparent criminals have caught on that they can pay a small amount of money and get full access to someone's apartment, including all of the information about that person's identity." Airbnb is being forced to figure out what happens when malicious people take advantage of the basic trust that's necessary if online relationships are to make all of us better off in the less secure, non-virtual world.

The company's immediate fix: insurance.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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