illustration of smart home connected out to apps and data collection

Andrey Suslov/Shutterstock (Licensed) Remix by Jason Reed

This is the technology landlords use to terrorize tenants

The era of smart landlords is here.

Sep 23, 2020, 6:03 pm*

Tech

Olga Lexell 

Olga Lexell

What does a landlord need to know about a tenant renting one of their units? It used to be that a background check, credit score, and security deposit were enough. But now, more and more landlords are implementing property technology or “proptech” to monitor their tenants long after they’ve moved into a new unit.  

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According to Landlord Tech Watch, proptech has exploded in popularity in recent years, leading to increased digital surveillance and data collection of tenants—often without their permission or even awareness. 

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a facial recognition analysis result
Unrecorded

Proptech can range from seemingly innocent tools—tenant screening services like Cozy and virtual property management apps like Doorstead and Till—to more daunting technological advances like Stonelock’s True Frictionless™ Solution. It can include smart locks, digital doormen, rent payment systems, digitally mediated amenities, and even Alexa.

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Pictured above, Stonelock’s True Frictionless™ Solution is a camera system that uses “near-infrared wavelengths … invisible to the eye … to generate unique biometric metadata” that it then turns into a multi-colored figure. That figure is used to identify anyone entering a building so that a key becomes unnecessary. Landlords argue that surveillance systems like TFS and other proptech help them keep illegal subletters and other unauthorized people from entering their buildings. 

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Tools like TFS that require tenants to add their faces to a security database have popped up in residential buildings across the country, including Atlantic Plaza Towers in Brooklyn. On its face, this type of camera may seem like an innovative replacement for CCTV, but for years, other similar data-driven recognition systems have been plagued by racial bias and controversies over data use. Specifically, facial recognition technology tends to be designed by white men and is therefore less accurate at identifying women and people of color. 

The world of housing, of course, already has deeply ingrained race and gender problems. Technology only exacerbates them. “Across multiple cities, I have witnessed and analyzed how real estate and technology platforms often work in conjunction to displace and target poor and working-class tenants of color,” writes Erin McElroy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. “Proptech extends this tendency, while also signaling the merger of two leading global industries, big tech and real estate, that hinge upon the accumulation of property—data and land, respectively. Proptech collapses these two property regimes, leading to the heightened dispossession of people long targeted by both.”

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In March 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sued Facebook over its alleged housing market discrimination in advertising. The lawsuit argued that Facebook allowed advertisers like mortgage lenders and real estate agents to target users based on protected classes like race, immigration status, and religious affiliation. As Desiree Fields explored in a 2019 essay, Facebook allowed housing providers to equate qualities like race to economic risk, thereby enabling patterns of segregation.

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The residents of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Plaza Towers organized successfully in 2019 to have the Stonelock system kept out of their homes. Critics of the recognition technology initially pointed out that the Towers’ Nelson Management chose to test it out on a building of predominantly Black women tenants, even though Nelson oversees properties in whiter and more affluent areas of New York City. Critics pointed out that the technology is more likely to misidentify women of color, leading to potential lockouts from their own homes or reprimands for other individuals’ conduct. 

More than 1,000 residential buildings in New York City use some variety of proptech, whether it’s TFS or a program like GateGuard, the facial recognition system that functions as a virtual doorman. However, many management companies and landlords keep quiet about this type of technology, instead collecting data on the sly. And because they don’t have to disclose what type of data is collected or what is done with it, there’s no way to know for sure how much they know about their tenants. Information about income and background is easily accessible to landlords, but proptech allows for the collection of new and more unconventional data: smart locks that record a tenant’s comings and goings, for example. Some of these tools, like FST21 SafeRise, were developed with input from former military personnel. 

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Americans everywhere have growing concerns about the excessive funding and militarization of policing. Many police bodies, from city forces like the NYPD and LAPD to federal agencies like ICE all use similar facial recognition technology to make arrests. Implementing these types of technologies makes renters feel like criminals, and is the reason Atlantic Plaza Towers residents came together to testify in a 2019 City Council hearing on facial recognition and biometric data collection. Nelson Management could not maintain the data’s security; there was no guarantee it would never be sold to an agency like ICE or the NYPD. One tenant argued: “We should not feel like we’re in a prison to enter into our homes.”

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The fear is not unwarranted. The doorbell company Ring, another form of proptech, recently admitted to working with more than 400 police forces in the United States, providing data from doorbell cameras to aid investigations.

Earlier this month, Portland moved to institute a broad facial recognition ban. Other cities like San Francisco; Somerville, Massachusetts; and Oakland already ban facial recognition software in some capacity. Congressional Representative Ayanna S. Pressley has been a vocal advocate in Massachusetts for a law that would ban the use of facial recognition systems in public housing. “We can’t continue to expand the footprint of a technology and the reach of it when there are no guardrails for these emerging technologies to protect civil rights,” said Rep. Pressley to the New York Times in 2019

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However, many of these bans do not extend to proptech because they specifically focus on facial recognition tools. A smart lock that requires fingerprint access to open a door would bypass that kind of rule while still giving a landlord power over their tenant. These bans prevent the local government from using this technology but do not prevent individual people from implementing it. They do not focus on housing protections, but rather restrictions on big tech. 

Proptech advocates argue that this technology is beneficial: It automates much of the property management role to save costs and makes it easier for those profiting off of housing to enforce rules on those paying for that housing. A landlord doesn’t have to deal with the hassle of a tenant’s late rent payment if a smart lock can just lock them out of their home for not turning rent in on time.

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Indeed, government surveillance has played a significant role in the policing of marginalized communities in the past. Without safeguards, the most vulnerable renters will bear the brunt of flawed algorithmic decision-making that in this case can mean the difference between having a home and having nowhere to go. 

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*First Published: Sep 22, 2020, 7:00 am