Winning Convenience or Losing Privacy? A Multifamily Guide to Smart Lock Concerns
Are smart locks more rewarding than they are risky? As the technology grows in popularity, HappyCo dives into a range of privacy, safety, and legal issues multifamily operators should know before they leave keys behind.
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“People who say they’re concerned about security will do a lot of insecure things.” A professor in Purdue University’s Department of Psychological Services, Robert W. Proctor didn’t mince words discussing smart locks during a recent interview with Vox. Indeed, he identified one of the biggest ironies in smart home tech; people openly worry about security risks, but many take the plunge anyway for the sake of convenience.
To set the stage: a January 2019 New York Times piece suggests 26.7 million American homes will feature smart devices like refrigerators, vacuums… and door locks by 2022. According to a recent survey cited by the National Apartment Association, “57 percent of residents said they would pay up to $20 more rent to have smart home technology in their apartments, with security cameras, keyless entry and smart thermostats ranking as top amenities.” Forbes puts a story to the stats: “simply put, a smart property owner would be wise to embrace smart devices, as the presence of such technology… has great appeal to younger renters.”
Yet, there’s a twist. Vox makes clear that this rise in demand coincides with a sense of discomfort: “some 63 percent of people [surveyed] find connected devices to be ‘creepy,’ and 75 percent don’t trust the way their data is shared by those devices.” Nevertheless, some 70 percent of the same survey takers “said they own one or more connected device.”
Against this unusual backdrop — intrigue meets suspicion — HappyCo covers the perks of smart locks before diving into top concerns multifamily operators should keep in mind before saying goodbye to traditional locks.
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HappyCo spoke with CA Management Services CEO Steve Boyack, for a big-picture sense of what smart locks could mean for multifamily operations. To Boyack, smart locks represent the “next wave of resident experience.” He believes they’ll help usher in a promising sea change for operators and residents alike: “a truly service-based experience, with dog walkers, cleaning companies, personal assistants — a range of people who need to get in and out of units seamlessly.”
Before Boyack started incorporating smart lock systems into his multifamily communities, he says his staff had to endure this kind of routine: “our front desk would have to check a massive log and see if ‘Steve’ really wants ‘Sally’ to get into the building at this time for this reason.” Post-smart locks, that hassle vanished, as “the apps enable our staff to see that on Tuesday from 9am-11am, the tenant really does give permission for a specific cleaner to enter their unit. As a manager, I can also use tech to monitor that visitor getting into the unit and going out of it, without involving extra staff time.”
Boyack also argues that smart locks can “definitely increase the efficiency of maintenance staff,” as techs can complete a work order on a certain floor and conveniently get a notification that they’re needed in a nearby part of the building. Boyack also believes smart locks will prove transformative in the leasing realm, spelling an end to an age-old apology from leasing agents to prospective renters: “sorry, I’m just going to have to run and grab the key before we can tour the unit.”
All told, Boyack believes today’s smart home tech integrations will save “thousands of hours of staff time” every year across his properties. While he largely manages student housing units, he still has yet to receive “negative feedback” from either student or traditional multifamily residents. As for security, Boyack says his staff makes every effort to keep residents — and their information — as secure as possible. “We make a commitment to work only with highly reputable companies who have the right safeguards in place.”
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Operators would do well to be as conscientious as Boyack when it comes to investing in smart locks. Having covered a range of operator upsides, it’s worth understanding why residents may be at odds with a smart lock transition. Among their top concerns: privacy.
The National Apartment Association describes how multifamily owner Sandeep Aggarwal had tenant convenience in mind when he decided to install electronic locks and cameras in the lobby of the fourplex he owns in Weehawken, New Jersey. Yet, he confesses: residents “didn’t like it. They felt like they were being watched, and that I was keeping a record of when they were coming and going from the building.”
Concerns like this were brought right to the surface during a recent smart-lock-centered lawsuit settled in New York City. CNET gets to the heart of the case: “a judge ordered landlords of an apartment building… to provide physical keys to any tenants who don’t want to use the Latch smart locks installed on the building last September.” At issue? As CNET reports, tenants at the property argued “there were privacy concerns with the… smart lock and the app required to get into their own building.”
Interestingly, The Verge paints a picture of residents feeling their mobility was limited — rather than enhanced — by a transition to smart locks. It reports that “93-year-old Tony Mysak was unable to use the smart lock,” which controlled access to his building’s elevator, and as he could not use the stairs, Mysak “had become a virtual shut-in since the system was installed.”
According to the New York Times, a different elderly resident of the building felt the technology switch represented something even more unsettling, arguing that “the landlord is using it as a tactic to push longtime tenants out to make way for higher rents.”
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Following the case, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who represents parts of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where the settlement was based, “introduced legislation… that would require landlords to provide a ‘traditional’ method of entry in all areas for tenants who prefer not to use a smart access system.” The legislation also puts tough limits on the collection of personal data by Latch or related companies.
Rosenthal went a step further, truly framing the stakes in the battle for convenience vs. privacy: “This is probably the wave of the future… and so we have to make sure as we gallop toward that brave new world that there are privacy protections and alternatives to using these apps. That people who are older or disabled or have issues are not being inconvenienced.”
To its credit, Latch took the case as a chance to clarify just how it operates in the realm of privacy. Latch Co-founder Luke Schoenfelder made clear to the New York Times that his company “did not capture, store or use GPS location data of users, nor did it share personal data with third parties for marketing purposes.” In fact, he stressed something beneficial to both operators and residents alike: “landlords can view only the history of entry into common areas, not residents’ apartment units, and they are not permitted to revoke access to the building without an order of eviction.”
While Latch is clearly taking privacy concerns seriously, the New York Times reports that the heated race to build smart home tech poses a significant risk for tenants and operators alike: hacking.
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Stressing the widespread interest in smart home tech, the New York Times notes in a January 2019 piece: “it’s no longer just tech geeks and phone-obsessed millennials who are scouring the tech universe for information on the next best gadget that lets them control lights, TVs, appliances, door locks.”
Yet, the piece highlights concerns from a hacking expert, who emphasizes: “all of this buzz and hype are putting pressure on smart device makers to rush their gadgets into the market while demand is hot — and sometimes, this means security features that take a back seat.” The New York Times describes just how things can go downhill when hackers make their move: “some get crafty, making mock interfaces on a person’s phone that look like an IoT’s interface login to steal passwords — similar to the way thieves send fake emails to people pretending to be from credit card companies and banks.” In the end, one security expert warns: “if one device gets compromised, it could be the same as allowing an attacker to plug into the entire network.”
Multi-Housing News showcases the unsettling turn things can take when hackers derail a family’s smart home tech setup. In a case of breached smart cameras, a woman named Laura Lyons and her loved ones suddenly heard a “loud alert… blaring through the living room of her home, warning that a ballistic missile attack was imminent and that residents of Los Angeles, Chicago, and parts of Ohio were in the crosshairs.” Victims of a third-party hack, the family learned a “compromised password” was likely the catalyst for their unnerving Sunday afternoon.
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Unfortunately, domestic violence advocates are finding there can be a truly dangerous twist to the smart home tech story: abusers using the devices to further control their victims. After gathering more than 30 interviews on the topic, the New York Times found: “Abusers — using apps on their smartphones, which are connected to the internet-enabled devices — would remotely control everyday objects in the home, sometimes to watch and listen, other times to scare or show power. Even after a partner had left the home, the devices often stayed and continued to be used to intimidate and confuse.”
Advocates discovered that, “for victims and emergency responders, the experiences were often aggravated by a lack of knowledge about how smart technology works.” Unfortunately, domestic violence centers often find that “legal recourse may be limited” as many “abusers have learned to use smart home technology to further their power and control in ways that often fall outside existing criminal laws.” Thus, as smart locks and smart cameras and smart thermostats grow in popularity, multifamily operators — and the tech companies they partner with — should be aware of the potential consequences for victims of domestic violence.
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At their best, smart locks can save staff time, boost revenue, attract millennial renters and increase building security from an operator standpoint. For residents, this technology offers tempting possibilities when it comes to hiring dog walkers and personal assistants or ensuring a friend from out of town can quietly enter their unit after a late-night flight. However, it’s clear that operators have much to consider — from data privacy to physical safety — before they make the switch to smart locks and other smart home devices.
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