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May 07, 2019

Has Smart Home Technology Gone Too Far? Some Tenants Think It Has

Tenants Say Smart Home Technology Puts Them At Risk For Abuse: Have We Gone Too Far?

Digital rules all. The fact that cyber protection insurance exists is a sign that the world is moving toward a fully digital state of being. The digital revolution seems to have started with the home computer, but smart home technology is moving it along at a rapid pace.

Smart home technology was once a luxury reserved for the rich, but now it’s commonplace. Nearly every electronic appliance and device in a home can be replaced with a smart technology equivalent including refrigerators, security systems, thermostats, lights, and even locks.

Most people are okay with smart appliances. In fact, Millennials are willing to pay more for smart home upgrades that include smart locks, a smart thermostat, and lighting controls.

Several years ago, apartment landlords began installing smart thermostats as a standard feature. Not many people resisted this change. Today, landlords across the U.S. are replacing traditional door locks with smart locks, and it’s causing a stir for a surprising reason.

Smart locks have become a source of data collection

Today’s smart locks are more than electronically controlled locks. Advertisers have figured out a way to exploit these locks for data collection and marketing. Tenants are being forced to use them, and they’re raising a fit.

In September 2018, a landlord in Manhattan installed smart locks on the lobby doors to a multi-story apartment. Residents could still access their apartment from a side door using a traditional key but would need to climb the stairs, since the elevators were only accessible through the lobby. Same with the mailboxes.

Resident Beth McKenzie told she initially refused to use the app to enter the building because she didn’t want to be tracked. The privacy policy allowed the company to collect and use her data, including GPS information, for marketing purposes. McKenzie spent months lugging groceries up three stories of stairs until she finally accepted a key card registered with her phone number and email address. She said her 93-year-old husband is now trapped in their home because he can’t use the technology to get in and out of the building.

A group of tenants filed a lawsuit against the landlord, but since no laws govern the use of electronic locks, it’s new territory.

Collecting tenant location data is new

Everyone’s used to supermarkets and department stores collecting data, but landlords collecting tenant location data on behalf of marketing companies is a new issue that has yet to be legislated.

In March 2019, New York State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal proposed bill A06788, which would prohibit landlord or condominium associates from “requiring the use of a smart access system for means of entry for building entrances, common areas, elevators, garage gates, or apartment entry doors” and “restricts information that may be gathered on lessees, tenants, owners or guests.” If this bill passes, it will restrict the data landlords can collect, and guarantee tenants the right to access their homes by way of a traditional lock and key.

A tenant’s privacy should come first

Landlords have a tough job, and it makes sense that they’d want to simplify their duties as much as possible. Maintaining building security for multi-family properties is a tough job. High-security electronic locks have been around for decades, and with today’s smart technology, they’re easier to use than ever before. However, convenience should be balanced with maintaining tenant privacy. It’s not in a tenant’s best interest to use smart locks that double as tracking devices.

Landlords are always looking for ways to mitigate their challenges with electronic solutions. For example, collecting rent is a significant source of stress for landlords, so many have adopted online rent collection systems. Landlords get paid faster, deal with fewer excuses, and it’s secure. However, the process of collecting rent electronically is highly regulated. The software used is PCI (News - Alert) compliant, and data is stored securely according to the law.

A tenant’s activities and GPS location should be treated with the same level of security as financial information, or better yet, not collected at all. Until laws are established to govern this gray area, landlords will continue to implement these tracking devices for marketers under the guise of better security.

There are benefits and risks to using smart locks

Despite tenant outrage, there are benefits to using smart locks. For example, requiring an electronic key to enter a lobby that leads to apartment units will prevent tenants from running illegal Airbnb operations. They can’t just duplicate their lobby key on the fly and give it to guests. On the flip side, homeowners running legal Airbnb operations can use smart locks to grant access to guests without being present.

Now for the risks. Smart locks can’t be picked or drilled out like traditional locks, but they can be hacked. Smart locks are susceptible to malicious attacks by hackers and can be disabled through its software intentionally or accidentally. For instance, in August 207, Lockstate accidentally bricked hundreds of their own locks after a failed software update. Since Airbnb officially recommends Lockstate locks to hosts, hundreds of Airbnb guests were locked out of their rentals without remedy. The problem rendered a remote fix impossible, and guests had to get in touch with their hosts to obtain the entry code to get back in. In the meantime, hosts had to wait up to a month to get a replacement lock.

Getting locked out isn’t the only risk with smart locks

People fear getting locked out of their homes with smart locks that go haywire, but these locks could easily fail to lock at all. It could take someone a while to notice when a smart lock fails to secure itself, and with no manual way of locking the door, that’s a bigger problem.

Landlords need to find the balance between convenience and privacy

Landlords have a responsibility to use smart technology in a way that supports their needs and respects tenant privacy at once. Any lock that can be opened remotely is at higher risk of being compromised. Remote access seems counterproductive to the purpose of a lock. Perhaps landlords should stick to smart thermostats, lights, and refrigerators. Or avoid installing smart locks until the law supports tenant privacy.

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