A UK start-up has created a system that allows landlords to monitor their tenants’ online activity in order to determine if they are a potential asset risk. This highly invasive data-mining system is called Tenant Assured. It does require prospective tenants to hand over their social media account details, but if the system becomes popular, they may have little or no choice but to do this.
Tenants need to “opt-in”, but much of the monitoring is performed covertly, and with minimal disclosure. This helps to ensure that tenants will be only minimally aware about the extent to which their personal habits, tweets, comments, and Likes can be monitored by their landlords.
“How do you identify that perfect tenant? Traditional data… only reveals a person’s past, or at best, the present… We think real personalities can be found in much more insightful stuff, like Tweets, comments, likes… the things people love to buy, and the places they check in. Even in the people they choose to spend their time with. Tenant Assured is a new kind of reference, one that takes as many digital touch points as a potential tenant is willing to grant access to, mashes them up with the traditional information you already have, and creates a personality score that’s much more reflective of the individual.”
So how does Tenant Assured work?
Landlords have for a long time now been able to check prospective tenants’ credit reports. It has also become increasingly common for them to also perform social media checks. Tenant Assured takes this to a new level, however. Assuming a prospective tenant agrees to hand over the details of their Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and/r Instagram accounts, landlords will be able to cyber-stalk their tenants.
Tenant Assured claims to provide landlords with the following information:
- ID discrepancies
- Locational misrepresentation
- Applicant’s 5 biggest personality traits
- Employment verification
- Credit affordability
- Date of birth confirmation
- High risk language alerts – pets, smoking etc.
- Payment date approximation
- New to country alert
- Applicant hobby/property suitability
- Best time to contact
Much of this is bad enough (“New to country” = “Immigrant alert!”), but it gets worse. As the sample report above shows, tenants are also given a “Personality score”, which include categories such as how open and conscientious they are based on their social media activity. Landlords will also be able to filter posts in order to look for “danger” words such as “poor”, “pregnant”, and “staying in?”
“An applicant’s digital footprint is his/her online reputation, or an amalgamation of every piece of data available about him/her online. For example, if an applicant is using a lot of negative words and regularly argumentative online, then he/she will likely have a negative online reputation. And vice versa. TenantAssured can provide a summary of each applicant’s digital footprint, allowing you to make a more informed decision in your vetting process.”
Caitlin Dewey from the Washington Post was brave enough to start filling in the personal tenant report, and very disturbed by what she found,
“Make no mistake: The data will mislead. Among the behaviors that count against your Tenant Assured ‘credit’ percentage — i.e., how confident the company is that you’ll pay rent — are ‘online retail social logins and frequency of social logins used for leisure activities.’ In other words, Tenant Assured draws conclusions about your credit-worthiness based on things such as whether you post about shopping or going out on the weekends.”
It almost goes with without saying that tenants do not get to see what is said in these reports, and that there is no mechanism for disputing their findings.
Why would anyone agree to this?
You would be mad! Right? Unfortunately, many prospective tenants are in vulnerable situations, and will do anything to get a decent roof over their heads. And if the system becomes popular, even the more financially secure may have to pay vastly inflated rents should they wish to opt out.
For many in rented accommodation this could make the deference between making ends meet and being out on the street.
In the US, Tenant Assured almost certainly falls foul of housing discrimination laws (which among other things protects tenants from discrimination based on race, age, and whether they are pregnant). As a UK-based company, however, Tenant Assured does not have to abide by the same rules.
More on the way
The Tenant Assured system is a just the first in a line of products planed for release by product British startup Score Assured. For founder Steve Thornhill, Tenant Assured is just the start. The company plans to release a number of other produces that leverage the algorithm which underlies the Tenant Assured system. The second of these, Recruit Assured, is planned for release at the end of July.
“By the end of July, the company expects to be offering specialized versions of the service to everyone from employers and HR departments to parents shopping around for nannies. Some day, Thornhill imagines, you won’t hire a dog sitter or book an Airbnb without first viewing their social media dossier, as compiled by his company.”
Dewey asked Thornhill if he was worried about the level of privacy invasion inherent in his technology. He brushed these concerns off, however,
“All we can do is give them the information. It’s up to landlords to do the right thing…. If you’re living a normal life, then, frankly, you have nothing to worry about.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tenant Assured has received a very hostile reception from the press. This might explain why the website is currently almost completely empty of information. Only the promise that the product is “coming soon” is displayed. Whereas two weeks ago Dewey described the website as “already live”, and was able to fill in a tenant survey.
Whatever the reason for this, it is unlikely that this invasive technology will simply go away. The terrible privacy implications of this are obvious enough, but it also leaves the door wide open for landlords to discriminate against immigrants, racial minorities, the LGBT community, etc., while also making it much harder for the most vulnerable members of society to secure a roof over their heads.