Do renters have the right to reject smart-home technology?
Mar 5, 2019

Do renters have the right to reject smart-home technology?

Some tenants prefer to keep their apartments dumb.

Smart homes full of connected devices aren’t just for those who own their houses. And if you’re a renter, you might get a smart apartment whether you want one or not. In January 2019, security researcher and blogger Lesley Carhart got a letter from her landlord saying their building was getting internet-connected door locks. Her response was, “No, thank you.” Host Molly Wood talked with Carhart about the big business of smart apartments. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Molly Wood: What are the pros of smart apartments?

Lesley Carhart: There are a lot of good reasons for implementing this technology. First of all, it makes it easier for rental properties to manage and maintain the units, especially when they’re unoccupied. They can do things like monitor for water leaks. They can also make an added convenience for their users, which is a good sell for potential residents. You can change your temperature from your phone. You can grant access to people when you’re not home and know who’s accessing your apartment when. There are a lot of benefits in terms of convenience and also the ability for apartment management companies to require less staff to do things like show apartments.

Wood: What are the cons, ranging from physical security to privacy?

Carhart: I often tell people that, in terms of security, things can be quick, cheap, secure, but not all three at once. In this case, the industry is asking for this to be implemented quickly and cheaply. Consumers really need to be asking for security here for multiple reasons. First of all, you’re sending a tremendous amount of data about the way that you live, who’s home, when you’re home, when you go to work. You’re sending that out over the internet to multiple parties. You would ostensibly want to send that securely. Also, the lock, of course, is granting access to your apartment. You want to be certain that nobody malicious can grant access to your apartment in a way that, unlike breaking into a window or breaking a lock off a door, is not really easily detectable.

Wood: I know this isn’t your specific area of expertise, but how much do you expect this to become a conversation about rights? Will a tenant in the future be able to demand the right to a dumb apartment?

Carhart: It isn’t my area of expertise. I’m not a lawyer, but, while I was investigating this, I didn’t find any precedent for issues like this. I don’t think much has been done. This is all so new, and it’s coming down the pipe so fast.

Wood: Where did you land in terms of feeling OK about moving forward with this?

Carhart: I’m buying a house. My threat model isn’t everybody’s. I’m a security researcher. I catch bad hackers for a living. The last thing I need in my life is a system that could be monitored or tampered with by one of the people who I sent to prison. Other people will feel differently and they have very, very different threat models. But it’s important to think about these issues because a lot of people don’t have a choice whether to rent or not to rent.

Related links: more insight from Molly Wood

Lesley Carhart wrote a follow-up this week to her original post. She’s been working with companies to help deploy apartment tech securely. She will also be speaking at a real estate conference called Multifamily Technology and Entrepreneurship next week in San Francisco.

Other than the fact that there’s an entire conference on this topic, it seems like connected buildings are a hot conversation in the property management world. There’s the usual tension for tenants and owners between convenience and security. One survey on Multifamily Executive said 57 percent of renters would pay more in rent in exchange for smart home features like keyless entry locks, doorbell cameras or smart thermostats.

Remember that cute little social robot named Jibo? It was a precursor to Alexa and the Google Home gadget, a robotic assistant that had a friendly face and could dance in place. It started out as an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in 2012. By 2017, Time Magazine called it one of the best innovations of the year. But now Jibo is basically a casualty of Alexa and apparently a bunch of knockoffs from China, and it’s shutting down. As its servers go offline, owners of the robot are getting a sad little message:

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