We’ve talked about smart home technology for homeowners. Now, in this article, we explore the advancement of smart apartments — when somebody other than the home’s resident puts the devices in place. Some of the products mentioned here, including entrance access technology and online financial portals, are also relevant to condominiums.
Of course, Wi-Fi thermostats and smart locks are big sellers, whether for houses, condos, or apartments. They’re convenient, and they can even be lifesavers. Smartphone apps can help protect tenants from intruders or domestic abusers. And as the technology advances, smart homes could offer attractive benefits — for example, by alerting people to water or gas leaks, by making directions to multi-unit properties easier and more fuel-efficient, or by providing safe ways for delivery drivers to drop off parcels inside a locked building.
But privacy advocates believe some smart home advancements overstep reasonable boundaries, creating distrust between people and their property managers. If that’s the case, could we embrace the potential of smart technology while protecting residents’ privacy?
Let’s take a look.
Alexa, Mind Your Own Business
Alexa for Residential, from Amazon, Inc., lets property managers set up accounts for residents to pay rent and submit maintenance requests. Amazon describes Alexa for Residential as a ready-to-use, voice-activated system, from which residents can hear the news and weather and set reminders using the Echo speakers in their units. So far, so good, if you’re one of many residents of multi-unit properties who appreciate these features. But not all renters want the tech in every case. And generally, the costs for multi-unit property tech is passed along to residents whether or not they want it installed.
With Amazon Echo speakers’ Drop In feature, someone can connect to another property’s device remotely, if given permission and when both devices are online. This allows the remote party to communicate with other parties, and to see and hear their surroundings. It could also allow for virtual unit inspections. Amazon claims it’s not possible for landlords to run Echo speakers in rental properties with the landlords’ own accounts — at least not without the tenant’s permission. Amazon also says property managers won’t have access to whatever the Alexa digital assistant records of residents’ transactions. Still, residents might have reason to wonder, given that Amazon employees have listened to conversations captured by Alexa in the past. In the development of artificial intelligence, human listeners play a role in improving machine learning and responses.
Landlords’ Fuzz Busters?
CNET describes and displays an advertisement from a security tech company, suggesting its artificial intelligence-based intercoms and doorbell cameras could help landlords raise rents and get around New York City’s policing of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which protects tenants from unreasonable rent charges.
The product, sold as an artificial-intelligence-powered “doorman,” tracks everyone who comes and goes to and from a property, whether to make deliveries, visit, or enter and leave their homes. The property owner’s dashboard shows images of all the activity. The technology has been purchased by hundreds of New York landlords, and is available for shipping nationwide and around the world.
Like a lot of property surveillance tech, the virtual doorman concept is also marketed as a benefit or convenience for residents. Yet because the doorbell needs a cell connection, it won’t ring if the internet connection is lost — an issue raised by residents’ reviews of the app.
Resisting the Landlord Tech
A number of high-profile actions and projects have arisen to challenge smart home tech at multi-unit properties:
- Renters in Manhattan are struggling for a right to carry traditional door keys in place of smart locks. Smart keys can be a particular privacy hazard insofar as they can be set up to enable property managers to track residents.
- People in Brooklyn have persuaded the management of the Atlantic Plaza Towers to cancel facial recognition technology plans. A number of residents — 130 of them — filed a formal complaint with the state. What are the issues? Facial recognition may be inaccurate at identifying non-white residents trying to enter their own homes. Moreover, home surveillance is just plain intrusive for those who don’t sign up for it. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the ACLU have backed the Atlantic Plaza Towers residents, pointing out that when residents have no choice but to accept surveillance, their right to privacy is at stake.
- And now there’s Landlord Tech Watch, from the AI Now Institute’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. The site enables residents to map out the properties with surveillance technology. It focuses on facial recognition products, internet-connected smart locks and intercom systems, and technology that might transmit data to property owners and managers about a resident’s habits. Landlord Tech Watch encourages supporters to get involved in decisions about the electronic gadgets that increasingly monitor us all.
Some tenants take matters into their own hands. In Woburn, Massachusetts, a resident dismantled an electronic SmartRent box that the building’s owner had bolted onto an apartment wall. The resident claims the property company launched a retaliatory eviction for his insistence that the box be disconnected. The parties became embroiled in a legal action in housing court over the box.
Law Begins Addressing Smart Home Privacy
Tenants’ rights projects, media exposés, and groups like the Tenants Political Action Committee in New York City have attracted city, state, and federal lawmakers’ attention to smart apartment technology questions. In New York City, the Tenant Data Privacy Act would restrict the sharing of surveillance information with third parties, and requiring residents’ consent before data could be used. Basically, residents would control their own data, and always be aware when management or maintenance personnel come into their homes.
Additionally, the bill would:
- Ensure that data on units be saved only 90 days or as long as tenants agree.
- Forbid GPS tracking by smart keys and devices.
- Offer residents the choice of a traditional key or smart technology for the own units.
- Bar the sale of tenant’s data.
- Bar the use of technology to collect evidence for use in evictions.
- Create a $6,000 penalty for each time a property violates the law.
At the time of this writing, the bill is in the Committee on Housing and Buildings.
On the state level, the New York Senate is considering legislation to completely bar facial recognition technology in all residential buildings. The state bill, also in committee, would allow for a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation. Several cities bar facial recognition technology from public spaces, and on the federal level is a proposal to outlaw facial recognition tech in public housing.
Smart home technology is becoming normal in our homes. It’s a plus for any house for sale today. It can help people stay informed, energy-efficient, and safe.
That said, the existence of smart home technology must require the informed and meaningful consent of the residents who use it. Being part of a multi-unit property shouldn’t mean giving up that prerogative. Laws have to catch up to the technology, so smart home innovations are employed not to disempower people, but to enrich our lives.
Joanna Nelius, Gizmodo, Amazon’s Alexa for Landlords Is a Privacy Nightmare Waiting to Happen (Sep. 3, 2020).
Alfred Ng, CNET, Smart Home Tech Can Help Evict Renters, Surveillance Company Tells Landlords (Oct. 25, 2019).
Hiawatha Bray, Boston Globe, In Smart Apartments, Is Tenants’ Privacy for Rent? (Feb. 11, 2020).
Michael McKee, New York Times (opinion): Your Landlord Could Know That You’re Not at Home Right Now (Dec. 17, 2019).
Photo credit: Alan J. Hendry, via Unsplash.