Home exchange networks do a very bad job of keeping member’s personal information secure. In fact, most don’t have any data privacy protections. Anyone with internet access can view details about homes, members, and even travel dates. While writing this post I spent some time doing general web searches in google as well as searches on lots of home exchange networks, and I started to feel like a I was snooping on people’s private lives. The detail in many listings is impressive. I’m not including many images in this post because frankly I felt guilty. And because it seemed like perpetuating the problem.
Why are home swap networks making this data public? Marketing. What better way to attract new members than show them all the fabulous homes they could visit? I’m pretty sure making this data public also helps with the website search engine results.
But there is also a good reason for prospective members to want to see this data. It’s hard to know if you want to join a network if you can’t preview the swap opportunities. If you live in London or New York it’s safe to assume you can find exchanges easily on any network. But what if you’re looking for swaps only to Portugal? Or if you live somewhere less popular for tourism. It’s nice to assure yourself there will be some matches before you pay a membership fee.
And to be fair, members benefit from good marketing by the home swap networks. More members = more exchange opportunities.
So, is this data exposure worth the risk?
What’s the risk?
Profiles on home exchange networks include details about homes, similar to AirBnb. There are lots of pictures of the home, details about the size and layout, highlights of special features, and often commentary about the location. In addition, many house swap network include a map showing the location of the home. In addition, profiles include details about and pictures of the member (and family where relevant). Most people include names of everyone in their household, along with details about jobs, leisure time activities, and travel desires. Members with kids usually also list the age of their children. And there are often reviews of exchange experiences by other members in the network. Finally, many networks include a calendar of dates when homes are available.
All this information is super helpful when you’re reviewing profiles looking for a swap partner. But this is not information you want out on the internet for anyone to find. In truth many people do post these personal details on Facebook, Instagram or other social media platforms. But for those who are a bit more inclined to privacy and security, this exposure is pretty extreme.
I’ve always thought home exchange websites are a great way for people to case homes before planning a robbery. But they’re also valuable to stalkers of any sort. It’s not just advertising dates when your home will be empty, it’s also advertising dates when you’ll be home.
What information is exposed to the public?
The short answer to this is: almost everything on most networks. The longer answer is that it varies by network, but it’s only a handful of exceptions that are hiding all your data from public view.
Try a google search on the title you gave your profile. For instance, “Zurich city flat with river views.” I searched on my title and found my home pictures came back in first page of the image search, and my profile on one network came up in the first page of results. If your title is more generic it won’t be so easy to pull up. But your data is all being archived for searches: the images, detailed description, map, and personal profiles.
On HomeExchange, the largest house swap network, I did a quick search for London, England. The second listing is titled “Modern flat along the thames, overlooking Kew Botanical Gardens in London.” The member has some nice pictures of the interior, including views out the window that would make it pretty easy to locate the flat. Especially when combining that with the very detailed description of the home and area. Many people also include pictures of the outside of their house.
HomeExchange does hide the map of the home, requiring me to create an account to see it. I can see a small picture of the owners, but I can only access details about them with a membership. And HomeExchange is also hiding the availability calendar from non-members. But it’s easy to create a fake account on HomeExchange since they don’t charge for membership. So hiding details behind this requirement isn’t much of a barrier.
HomeExchange is going further than some other networks to protect the data of their members. LoveHomeSwap shows a map and the calendar of availability. While they don’t put a pin in the exact location, it’s pretty easy to find homes with the detail shown
Homelink is similar: without logging in you can see a map, the full home description, all the pictures, and details about the owners and their previous swaps. The map does not zoom into the individual home location, but I think this detail is pretty specific. The purple dot is the home I was hovering over on the right.
Intervac shows me all information about the home and the owners, and includes a map with a link to a lat/lon detailed location, to go along with the front door pictures posted by the members.
There are a handful of home swap networks only allow members to see listings. But some of the networks restricting data are free to join. So there is only a small barrier to entry (creating a profile) before people can get access to all this information.
Are there any data privacy policies?
Most home exchange networks have official data privacy policies. Many appear to be written specifically for the GDPR, the European data protection regulations that went into effect in 2018. But those regulations are not written to address this problem.
Networks like HomeExchange, LoveHomeSwap, and Intervac have extensive policies which imply that only members of the network, the company, and their business partners have access to your private data. But this is talking about specific types of data (your email address, for instance). Most networks don’t mention the information that is accessible by the public.
HomeLink’s policy is a bit more clear: “Your non-personally-identifying demographic information and your home details and photos are used to allow other members and visitors to find your home through a search or to check the quality and details of your home.” And HomeBase Holidays has something similar: “by adding your home swap listing to the Home Base Holidays website, you will add information about the property and its location. Information you add in your home swap listing will be visible to all visitors of the Home Base Holidays website.”
I only checked a handful of networks but I’m sure most have some sort of disclaimer. But I wasn’t expecting to find anything surprising in these policies. After all, it is the policy of most networks to expose your data in the interests of building the network.
What can you do to protect yourself?
Don’t include details about yourself that you don’t want shown publicly on the internet.
Use only your first name, and consider using a nickname on your profile.
Never post a picture of the outside of your home. Or of the view from the inside that includes any identifiable landmarks. This makes it harder for people to find your home.
Keep your home title generic.
But best of all, only join networks that hide the information you want kept from the public.
What networks hide members’ data from public searches?
If you’re looking for a general home exchange network, the only one I know of that is entirely hiding all data from the public behind a paywall of membership is BlueKeyClub. This network just launched in 2019, and the founders emphasize the importance of protecting members’ data privacy. The other paid networks listed below are focused on specific home swap needs (i.e. ThirdHome is for vacation properties, Waldorf is for that community, Behomm is for design lovers.)
Knok (security certificate expired a year ago, unclear why it wasn’t renewed)
BeLocalExchange (free membership required)
PeopleLikeUs (free membership required to see photos, maps, and reviews)
HomeExchange (free membership required to see map, member profile, and reviews)
I’ve probably missed a few that hide some details from non-members, please list them in the comments and I will update this post