Why you don't need to freak out about that new landlord "spy tool"—yet

By Virginia K. Smith  | June 16, 2016 - 1:59PM

In an age where bad landlords will use any tactic available to give stabilized tenants the boot, landlord surveillance is a very real problem. So it's understandable the New York City renters were suitably horrified by news that circulated last week about Tenant Assured, a new UK startup that lets landlords comb through your social media profiles to assess nebulous factors like your "financial stress level" and "agreeability."

It works like this: A landlord might send out an email request to a prospective renter, and once you agree to it, they have access to not just your public profiles but your DMs and Facebook messages, and are given a report on you that includes an overall risk rating as well as a profile picture. Needless to say, this raises quite a few concerns about digital privacy as well as the potential for discrimination that violates Fair Housing laws.

However, it's also not likely coming to a landlord near you anytime soon. 

For starters, Tenant Assured co-founder Steve Thornhill told the Verge last week that the company currently has no plans to bring the product to the United States market, and with good reason. "If they tried to bring [this product] over from the UK, we have so many laws they'd have to come up against that it probably doesn't make a lot of sense for them to try to establish themselves in the United States," says James Fishman, an attorney with tenant and consumer firm Fishman Rozen.

"First of all, because they're providing information that's expected to be used for a credit-related decision like renting an apartment, they'd be considered a credit reporting agency, and fall under the jursidiction of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau," Fishman explains. On top of that, he notes, "the Fair Credit Reporting Act is privately enforceable, so [Tenant Assured would] be subject to private lawsuits by individuals" if the company's practices didn't properly follow regulations.

On top of that, notes tenants' rights attorney Sam Himmelstein (FYI, a Brick sponsor), given its vague focus on keywords and a renter's general vibe on social media, a site like Tenant Assured would leave itself wide open to Fair Housing lawsuits, which protect renters from rejection on the basis of factors like race, nationality, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, source of income, and whether or not they have children. "There's a lot of stuff there, and I think that's where [Tenant Assured] would eventually get into trouble," says Himmelstein.

Add to that the fact that even landlord groups like the American Apartment Owners Association are distancing themselves from the technology, and it doesn't seem like U.S. renters have anything to be too worried about on this front just yet.

"In the overall scheme of things, I don't really see [the site] as much of a threat," says Fishman. Instead, he says, New York renters should be far more concerned about things like the tenant blacklist.


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