Tenants worry smart-home tech could be abused by landlords

Worst case, landlords could use smart locks to track and harass residents. And what if you just want a key?

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
6 min read

Many landlords are updating to smart locks, but tenants just want keys.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Like many, Mary Beth McKenzie and her husband, Tony Mysak, have used keys all their lives.

They used keys to start cars, open locks and, for the last 45 years, to get into their New York home. The two live on the third floor of an apartment building in Hell's Kitchen, a neighborhood in Manhattan. They used keys to get in until last September, when their landlord switched to smart locks for getting into the building lobby.

Like homeowners, who are flocking to connected devices like smart locks and doorbells, landlords see the benefits that come from upgrading their units with smart security. It gives them greater control of access to their buildings and can eliminate the costs and hassles associated with lockouts and rekeying doors. 

But smart locks aren't sitting well with tenants like McKenzie and Mysak, who have no control over the changes and fear they open the door to security and privacy threats. In a worst-case scenario, landlords could abuse this technology to track and harass residents.

"I've seen cases where landlords resort to extreme forms of brute force to force tenants to leave," said Seth Miller, a veteran attorney with experience representing tenants in New York.

Watch this: Testing the security of the Kwikset Kevo Bluetooth Door Lock

He's dealt with lawsuits in which landlords have removed tenants' entire bathrooms and kitchens in attempts to force them out of apartments.

"These new technologies are a weapon, and landlords will jump at the chance to use them," he said.

Because the technology is so new, there's no legislation on smart homes and tenants' rights. Lawmakers in New York are hoping to change that, but even if the legislation passes, it wouldn't provide protection to tenants in 49 other states.

There were about 2.3 million evictions filed in 2016, and many low-income tenants can't afford attorneys to defend them in court. They can't fight these privacy issues, and they're looking for laws to help protect them.

Locked in

The Latch smart lock system allows tenants to get in without a key, either using its app, a set of codes or a card to enter. It's installed in more than 1,000 buildings in New York, and part of a growing trend of landlords installing smart home technology in buildings, whether tenants like it or not.

But for tenants like McKenzie and Mysak, the technology has changed their lives for the worse.

With the app came an extensive privacy policy that allowed Latch to use data it collected for marketing and gave permission to take GPS information. McKenzie didn't want to use the app to get in, and raised issues with her landlord.

"I said I don't want to be tracked, and he laughed," the 72-year-old artist said.

Tenants who didn't want to use the smart lock still had access to the building through a side door where they could use their key. But the lobby was locked by Latch, so tenants had no access to the elevators and mailboxes unless they used the system.

For months, McKenzie had been taking the stairs, trekking up three stories, and was unable to check her mail.

She gave in last month and took a key card -- which is registered with her phone number and email address -- to access the lobby with the elevator, having grown tired of carrying groceries up the stairs.  

Her 93-year-old husband, who has lost sight in one eye, can't adopt the new technology and has essentially been trapped in his own home because of the smart locks.

"He's not really capable of using a smartphone app," McKenzie said.

McKenzie and a group of tenants have filed a lawsuit against the landlord, with demands that they be able to use a simple key to get in the building lobby. Lisa Gallaudet, the landlord's attorney, said the tenants are offered codes to enter the lobby without using a phone. 

"No data is received by the owner other than entry through this one door that was just installed in 2018," Gallaudet said in an email.

Lawless locks

There are no laws explicitly stating that landlords have to provide traditional methods of entry, making the issue of what technology they can install for locks something of a gray area. Gothamist reported on a landlord in Brooklyn who intends to install facial recognition systems for entry.

When the tenants contacted New York's Department of Buildings with concerns, a member of the city's Loft Board, which oversees buildings like the ones McKenzie lives in, said there were no issues with smart locks used for entry.

Watch this: Convenience be damned: Is smart lock voice control really secure?

In an email sent last September, the board's executive director, Helaine Balsam, wrote to the tenants, "As to whether keys can be electronic, I see no reason why not. The fact that the tenants might prefer non-electronic keys, is in my opinion, irrelevant as long as there is door security."

A DOB spokeswoman said the agency doesn't comment on tenant-landlord litigation.

New York State assembly member Linda Rosenthal proposed legislation in March that would restrict data that landlords can gather. If passed, it would be the first law in the US to limit smart home technology installed by landlords.

The bill would guarantee that tenants have a traditional method of getting into their homes, including building entrances and common areas like elevators and garages. It would also restrict data collection.

"This technology makes it easier for tenants to be electronically stalked," Rosenthal said. "Signing a lease doesn't mean you get to follow me around all day and know where I go."

A spokeswoman from Latch said that while the company's privacy policy states that it can collect your location data and use it for marketing purposes, the app isn't doing that.

"We are currently revising our privacy policy to remove any possible ambiguity and to make our strong record of privacy protection crystal clear," Latch CEO Luke Schoenfelder said in a statement.

The company said it would change its privacy policy by the end of April.

How to keep your old keys with a new smart lock

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But Rosenthal has seen a history of landlords using technology to abuse their tenants.

In 2010, she passed rent regulations preventing landlords from requiring electronic payments. An elderly tenant told the New York lawmaker that her landlord was forcing her to pay rent online, when she didn't even have a bank account.

Along with her proposed legislation, Rosenthal said she is drafting a bill that would prohibit data mining in smart home systems without people's consent.

Landlord disputes

Tenants' worries about smart locks, however, go beyond malicious hackers and data sold to marketers.

Miller, who represents one of the tenants in McKenzie's lawsuit, said smart locks like Latch open the door to abuse by shady landlords. In his years arguing housing disputes, he's seen landlords change locks in attempts to force tenants to move.

He's also seen landlords hire private investigators to find any reason to evict tenants. In those cases, Miller said landlords were motivated to kick out people living in rent-controlled apartments so they could start charging twice as much for new tenants.

With an app that allows for landlords to change the lock and potentially track tenants from a click, Miller said there's massive potential for abuse with these systems.

"You think nobody is going to misuse this technology when millions of dollars are at stake?" Miller asked.

A Latch spokesperson said that landlords cannot access this GPS data and that it logs and records when a landlord changes the lock access. The company didn't explain any safety measures in the event of malicious lockouts, but said its terms of service does not allow for abuse.

This potential for abuse is why Rosenthal hopes her bill will pass in New York before the end of the year. More landlords are installing smart systems in apartments, as tenants worry that there's no laws protecting them from data collection and surveillance.

While McKenzie now uses the key card, she still doesn't trust her landlord.

Until a law requires limits on smart locks, she's fighting in court to get a traditional key.

"I just want a key," McKenzie said. "I don't understand why that's so difficult. They still have a keyhole."