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

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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.

"On August 15th, we will be implementing a $50,000 Airbnb Guarantee, protecting the property of hosts from damage by Airbnb guests who book reservations through our website," Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky wrote in a Monday email sent to all registered users of the site. "We will extend this program to ... any other hosts who may have reported such property damage while renting on Airbnb in the past."

For Airbnb renters, this only matters insofar as we want people to keep renting to us. As long as the site exists, that isn't likely to be a problem for me personally. My unusual name, long Google trail, and the fact that I verifiably work for a well respected national magazine is sufficient to immediately persuade most landlords that I am not going to go rogue, take their digital camera to sell, or abscond with their clean white linens and fancy French cologne.

But what about my own dwelling. Is $50K insurance enough to incentivize me to rent to people from the Internet? I think so, but only because of another Airbnb security feature that I haven't seen discussed, and that seems like a much bigger game-changer to me going forward: the fact that lots of folks on Airbnb are connecting their profiles to their Facebook account. Some weeks back, when I was on the site looking for a short term rental in Southern California, it surprised me to see how many friends of Facebook friends were landlords -- one guy who had a place that interested me went to graduate school with one of my friends from high school, for example.

Logging onto Airbnb now, I see that the functionality has changed: any user can now ask his or her Facebook friends to write a review vouching for their honesty. Perhaps other evolutions are going to follow. The specifics don't matter as much as this insight: going forward, sites like Airbnb may at times facilitate transactions among total strangers. I'd rent my sparsely furnished studio apartment to a stranger, and store everything irreplaceable elsewhere just in case.

But I'd be more careful if I had a nicely furnished house with too much valuable stuff to move. I might not rent it to a total stranger, unless he or she had been well reviewed by lots of other Airbnb landlords. I would rent to a friend of a friend. Or a graduate of Pomona College, my alma mater. Or a fellow employee of Atlantic Media. Or maybe even a friend of a friend of a friend (depending on the friends).

We'll soon find ourselves interacting with and trusting total strangers online less often than people in our extended social networks. And a lack of Facebook friends, or its future equivalent, will come to seem suspicious in certain contexts. In a way, that's too bad. But it has its upsides.

Here's one: Airbnb will thrive.

Image credit: Airbnb.

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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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