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Social Media and Surveillance: The New Research Tools for Info-Hungry Landlords

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
New Activism
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Big brother may be watching. And if you live in a major city with rent-control laws, renter protection and a dearth of apartments for rent, that big brother could be your landlord.

New technology is on the horizon -- and, in some cases, is already in play -- that allows landlords to maintain surveillance on their tenants. And we don't mean the slink-around-the-corner type, but online systems that give landlords increased information about who you are, what you do and where you go. But more disturbing, reports Dia Kayyali in Quartz magazine, such technologies offer clients an open door to profiling and discriminatory approaches in deciding who should rent their property.

Now let's be honest. Landlords often have vested interests they wish to protect. They want to make sure their property is respected and well cared for. They may be concerned about renting to drug users or people who engage in illegal behavior. Many of us would understand those concerns. But that isn't the only way the software is being used, Kayyali reports. And it isn't just individuals with police records who are being scrutinized or refused.

Kayyali called programs like Tenant Assured "invasive, misleading and potentially discriminatory." It goes beyond your average analysis of a prospective tenant by rating those things that have generally been off-limits when discussing an applicant's qualifications. "The 'new to country' alert, for example, seems tailor-made to facilitate discrimination against immigrants," Kayyali wrote. And while hobbies and personality traits aren't necessarily red flags when it comes to invasive software, the service doesn't stop there.

"Your applicant is invited to connect from one to four of his/her social media accounts through our secure portal. Once we have permission, obtained during the connection process, we are able to search through millions of data points, both public and private" with the objective of providing a comprehensive character assessment, Tenant Assured said. According to Tenant Assured founder Steve Thornhill, the software doesn't just look for poor credit, but also looks to see what kind of life you live: Do you live a "normal" life?

Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey spoke with Thornhill, who ran a prospective tenant report for her using her personal details.

"My personal tenant report includes a list of my closest friends and interests, a percentage breakdown of my personality traits, a list of every time I’ve tweeted the words 'loan' and 'pregnant,' and the algorithm’s confidence that I’ll pay my rent consistently," Dewey wrote.

But for Kayyali, it is isn't just the weirdness of seeing the most intimate details of your life recounted in a tenant report, but the immense potential for landlords to use that access to discriminate. Startup programs like Tenant Assured, Naborly and Score Assured have the potential to peer into people's sex lives and offer data for generalization. They can potentially go into areas of consideration that landlords are restricted from entering, like whether a tenant is gay or transsexual; the tenant's political views; and what religion they practice.

With this tech, any facts that can be mined from social media is fair game. An applicant who wants to rent that apartment, house or condo has little choice but to surrender access to his or her social media accounts -- with the recognition, of course, that the would-be renter has no rights to see or correct that information. Unlike credit reporting agencies, both writers noted, Tenant Assured, Naborly and other online applicant-rating systems aren't governed by regulations that give tenants the right to see and correct reports before they are sent to the client.

Sophisticated online services aren't the only ones that have caught on to the fact that social media can be a goldmine of hidden, private information. One landlord consultancy site advises landlords that social media can "aid you in keeping out negligent tenants – the key is to be careful and only use it for the right reasons." It cautions landlords that there can be ramifications for the surveillance, however. "You may be accused of violating a tenant’s privacy if they found out you conducted a little social media research." But if their social media accounts are public, "that information is fair game."

And landlords aren't the only ones who can request your information from companies like Tenant Assured, Dewey noted. Employers, creditors, even potential first dates can purchase access on the pretense of seeing what kind of person you are -- and forming that first impression. In fact, it's pretty much open territory, Thornhill told the Post. His vision, says Dewey, includes a day when services like Tenant Assured and Score Assured will be the go-to sources before making a financial transaction.

There's no question that social media played a significant role in inspiring startups like these, but it isn't the only driving force. They also grew from the push by landlords in rent-controlled cities and owners of rent-stabilized buildings to regain some control over who or how they rent their property.

"Landlords already have access to many traditional methods of surveillance," Kayyali wrote. The list includes "de-tenant" strategies like motion sensors and camera surveillance to identify tenants who aren't using their rentals as a primary residence (an issue that put Airbnb in the hot seat a few years ago when New York City discovered an increase in illegal sublet apartments by Airbnb customers).

The answer for low-income tenants and others who feel they may be subject to such surveillance, Kayyali wrote, is to "fight back." Learn what can be done to protect your online information. Find out what protections you may have in your state, and speak out if you feel you are being harassed. As Dewey pointed out, there's always a chance that aggressive social media scanning programs like this won't catch on with consumers. But don't count on it.

Image: Flickr/Matthew Rutledge

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee