Surveillance technology is costing tenants their privacy. It could be costing them financially, too.
Internet-connected locks and facial recognition systems have raised privacy concerns among tenants across the country. A sales pitch directed at landlords by a smart-home security company indicates that the technology could help them raise rental prices and potentially get people evicted.
A smart intercom company called Teman GateGuard has been pitching its surveillance technology to landlords in New York as a way to sidestep rent-control regulations in the city, according to emails reviewed by CNET.
The email's subject line says, "GateGuard: 3 Steps to de-stabilize NYC units -- even after the new law!" and opens with the sentence, "You CAN raise rents in NYC!"
According to the instructions in the email, a landlord can use Teman's GateGuard AI Doorman Intercom to photograph every visitor in the building to see if tenants are illegally subletting units. If tenants are caught breaking the rules, they can be evicted. Lastly, the landlord can combine or convert the unit to circumvent the rent control laws and charge a market rate.
"Use the GateGuard AI Doorman Intercom to catch illegal sublets, non-primaries, Airbnbs, so you can vacate a unit," GateGuard's sales team wrote in the email. "Combine a $950/mo studio and a $1400/mo one-bedroom into a $4200 DEREGULATED two-bedroom."
This technique adds another wrinkle to the already messy trend of getting smart home technology into apartments. While the features that come with smart locks or doorbell cameras offer conveniences for homeowners, they open up concerns about privacy for renters -- who might not have signed on for constant surveillance.
"This is exactly the sort of predatory behavior that we feared residential surveillance would enable," said Albert Fox Cahn, director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit devoted to stopping discriminatory surveillance. "Facial recognition and emerging forms of AI give landlords alarming power to harass rent-stabilized tenants."
Smart home upgrades have already led to clashes. In Brooklyn, tenants in a rent-regulated apartment have been fighting their landlord to stop the installation of facial recognition entry systems, sounding off about privacy and racial bias. Manhattan tenants have sued for the right to physical keys after the landlord installed smart locks.
But Ari Teman, GateGuard's founder, said his sales pitch was being misunderstood.
"We're coming to [landlords] and saying you can ... save your investment that New York has made a money-losing investment, if you find the guys that are breaking the laws in your buildings," Teman said. "I can't get rid of a guy who's living in his unit legally, and I have no interest in that."
Teman founded GateGuard in 2016, after he started SubletSpy.com to help landlords find Airbnbs and sublets hosted in their buildings. He was inspired to create the SubletSpy website after he rented his own apartment on Airbnb in 2014 and it was used for an orgy that cost him over $23,000 in damages.
On its website, GateGuard said it "autonomously tracks everyone who enters, buzzes, or uses a guest code, and generates logs you can view, filter, and print from any mobile, tablet, or computer."
Every interaction with the GateGuard, including buzzes and deliveries, results in a photograph that's sent to a dashboard the landlord can view. It's installed in about 1,000 buildings in New York, and there are installations across North America, Europe, South America and Australia.
The surveillance system is also capable of using facial recognition, though Teman said it isn't being used in residential buildings.
A disclaimer on the GateGuard website reads, "You should understand even if you opt-out of using face recognition instead of an ID number, your building may still have the legal right to film, record, and recognize those who come into the building."
Teman told CNET that he received backlash over his company's sales pitch to landlords, but he argued that people were misunderstanding GateGuard's intentions in regard to kicking out tenants in rent-regulated apartments.
"The only thing that we're talking about are people that are outright breaking laws," Teman said, referring to Airbnb hosts and subletters. "Very clearly, it says 'catch and vacate a law-breaking unit.'"
Teman said illegal Airbnb hosts are the real problem for both landlords and tenants, and suggested the smart home surveillance is welcome because it helps improve conditions for residents.
Outside of Airbnb hosts, subletters and unlisted roommates, Teman said the system could catch regulated-rent tenants hosting brothels and drug dens. GateGuard is installed to monitor hundreds of thousands of apartment units, and he said the surveillance technology has found "dozens" of cases of abuse.
But not everyone welcomes being watched. The tenants in Brooklyn and Manhattan who are fighting their landlords are worried the technology could be used to harass them until they move out of their rent-controlled apartments.
The GateGuard founder said the surveillance was worth it for protecting landlord investments.
"If there's 30 people in the building, and there's two people operating an illegal Airbnb, those two people could bankrupt the building," he said.
GateGuard's email pitch specifically targeted landlords in New York looking for ways around the state's new rent stabilization laws passed in June. The law prevented landlords from drastically hiking rents and gave tenants more rights in rent-regulated apartments.
Despite Teman's specific, step-by-step instructions to get around those rules, Seth Miller, a tenants attorney, said evidence from GateGuard's cameras might not even be admissible in court.
"A motion-based surveillance camera at a building entrance is not going to be enough to evict a regulated tenant, especially not for subletting, since the camera doesn't know who is a legitimate guest or roommate," Miller said in an email.
The smart intercom could be used to find apartments with roommates who aren't on the lease, GateGuard's sales team suggested. Because it also keeps a log of every entry, it could identify tenants who weren't frequently home, Teman said.
This kind of surveillance is what tenants worried the technology would bring to their doorsteps. Anita Lamar lives in a rent-regulated apartment in Brooklyn, and has been part of the fight against her landlord's attempts to install facial recognition.
She said GateGuard's ad confirmed her concerns about how landlords could use technology to raise rent.
"It's not right, and we as citizens have to put a stop to this," Lamar said. "We don't need Big Brother spying on us where we pay our rent."