Online Services and Hospitality Security Go Hand in Hand

Online services face the same hospitality security challenges as traditional hotels and taxi companies. A online hospitality provider must ensure the security of its infrastructure, clientele and the points at which the two intersect.

To dig into the topic, we queried major industry players and reviewed a plethora of open source materials to determine how other hospitality companies tackle their security needs.

Airbnb Dishes on Hospitality Security

All hospitality businesses have one thing in common: They want to put you in their cars, rooms and hotels. As time passes, unlike manufactured goods, the opportunity to sell services disappears. Each entity serves as the middle man between the client and the service provider, which necessitates standards for both.

HomeAway and Airbnb are two of the largest providers in the virtual lodging sector. While Airbnb has no physical control over the 3 million properties it lists on its website, its model works because it accounts for security on both sides of the bartered agreement.

“Airbnb protects hosts and guests by handling all payment and communication through our secure platform,” said Airbnb spokesman Nick Shapiro. “We have a real-time risk detection system that uses machine learning to detect and stop fraud before it affects our users, instantly evaluating more than 300 risk signals. When you keep your payment and communication strictly on the Airbnb platform, payments are accurate and your account is secure. If a guest or a host ever has an issue, our 250-person, global trust and safety team is on call 24/7 to help.”

The company’s operations centers are located in San Francisco, Dublin, Singapore and Portland, Oregon. Shapiro noted that Airbnb also offers liability insurance of $1 million to help protect eligible hosts and their property.

In 2015, Airbnb recorded 40 million guest arrivals at worldwide listings. Significant property damage was reported only 0.002 percent of the time, which works out to approximately one in every 41,000 guest arrivals, according to Shapiro.

HomeAway Keeps Fraudsters at Bay

HomeAway has over 1 million listings and receives 100 million online visitors each month. Similar to Airbnb, HomeAway recommends that all payments be transacted within its own infrastructure. Thus, clients and hosts are protected against fraud, and hosts have a platform on which to form trust and confidence with travelers.

HomeAway also offers hosts insurance to cover damage — for a fee. According to a review of the current open requisitions within the technology infrastructure, the company is seeking IT professionals with a variety of DevOps specializations in a variety of locations in the U.S. and abroad. These open requisitions call for expertise in areas associated with building a secure infrastructure.

The Truth About Trust

But what about the physical security of the host and the guest? How do hosts know who is coming through their door and entering their property? What are hosts obligated to disclose, and what do guests expect in terms of security? How are provider and user ratings crowdsourced? Does the system work?

The community aspect is the key to the most important ingredient in the virtual service industry: trust. Companies are beginning to recognize the need to hire a chief trust officer (CTO), especially those with business models built on trust. This executive should monitor the activity of the organization as well as that of the millions of individuals with whom he or she is loosely connected.

Shapiro explained that Airbnb checks guests’ names to see “if there are matches with certain felony convictions, sex offender registrations or significant misdemeanors.” This, the company believes, adds to authenticity, reliability and security of the business model.

Protecting PII

The archive of personally identifiable information (PII) is no doubt a prime target for cybercriminals. While Shapiro declined to offer specifics concerning how Airbnb protects this data, he provided assurance the company’s experienced security team knows the threat landscape well.

Airbnb requires two-factor authentication to access the network and regularly conducts internal audits, code reviews and third-party penetration tests. The network is hosted in data centers located within the U.S. Additionally, Airbnb contracts cloud providers with track records of secure implementation.

The effort to protect the physical security starts before the guest makes a reservation. The Airbnb platform allows parties on either side of a transaction to request additional verification data. Additionally, hosts must disclose the existence of video cameras and other potentially invasive devices.

Hitching a Ride

According to Uber’s privacy policy, the transportation network collects customer information related to location, transaction details, user preferences, devices, contacts, call and SMS details, and log information. So users volunteer a great deal of information beyond the pickup and drop-off points. The aggregated data is designed to provide a quality service experience and detect fraud and criminal behavior. However, users lose control of their accounts so frequently that Uber created a dedicated page to help them wrangle their information from malicious actors.

Lyft, another transportation service, is currently hiring data analysts and software engineers, which is indicative of a robust infrastructure processing significant amounts of data. Data is useless if you can’t make sense of it, so it’s beneficial to have a surplus of analysts.

It takes significant back-end investment to provide the logistical engagement between riders who want their rides to arrive now and drivers who want to fill their cars with paying customers. The faster the technology can operate, the more quickly it can meet both parties’ needs.

No One Is Immune

No company is immune to hospitality security issues. Indeed, some would argue that they are outside of the control of the industry. For example, experts have criticized Uber for allegedly monitoring clients’ use of the service. This may seem like an innocent practice to ensure customer satisfaction, but some experts claim the company could use its monitoring tools for snooping purposes.

Airbnb is in the middle of an ongoing personal injury lawsuit filed in December 2015 after a guest discovered a video monitoring device. Shapiro explained that Airbnb’s current policy is to forbid hosts from subjecting guests to video surveillance in bedrooms and bathrooms.

Don’t Leave Home Without Doing Your Homework

It is hard to argue against using these services for business travel. Many transportation providers, for example, have created corporate account logging systems to make it convenient for companies to use their services.

The convenience factor is high, but all users should educate themselves about hospitality security to avoid major headaches in the future. They should manage their own privacy settings and expect service providers to collect their usage and experience data.

Do your homework before you lodge by reading crowdsourced reviews and commentary. If none exist, demand additional information until your security and privacy needs are satisfied. Recognize that limitations on the enforcement of policies may infringe upon your security and privacy. In short, don’t let convenience trump your personal and professional security.

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Christopher Burgess

CEO at Prevendra

Christopher Burgess is the CEO of Prevendra, a security, privacy and intelligence company. He is also an author, speaker and advocate for effective security strategies, be they for your company, home or family. Christopher co-authored "Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost: Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century" (Syngress, March 2008) and authored the e-book, "Senior Online Safety" (Prevendra, March 2014) and is the voice behind the website, "Senior Online Safety." Prior to the founding of Prevendra, Christopher held a variety of private and public sector positions, which included, chief operating office and chief security officer of a big data analytic company, Atigeo; Senior Security Advisor to the CSO of Cisco, a Fortune 100, and 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher resides in Woodinville, WA with his family, two dogs and two horses.