Unlocking the Threats to Privacy Posed by “Smart Locks”

by Vins

Tenants across the United States are being harassed by landlords with “smart locks” installed without the renters’ consent, and very little is being done about it. According to Mario Trujillo and Adam Schwartz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, New York City is one of the only jurisdictions to pass a privacy law relating to the regulation of smart lock data (as of April 4, 2023) despite the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) first expressing concern for this issue back in 2015. Unregulated smart lock data is a threat to the privacy of tenants across the United States, as it provides landlords, law enforcement, and private companies access to sensitive data relating to the location of tenants. In other words, tenants are being forced into revealing their location and enabling tracking every time they enter their homes, without consent in most cases.

These smart locks are a violation of tenants’ rights to privacy. The smart locks track when tenants enter and exit their homes, which creates a multitude of issues. The companies that create, monitor, and store data from these smart locks can share the data with law enforcement, giving police a perfect record of exactly when an individual was and was not home. Not only can this violate the Fourth Amendment, but it can also give the police access to data about an individual’s whereabouts before they were being investigated. The companies behind these smart locks are also in a position to potentially sell sensitive data relating to when a tenant is at home or not, allowing the companies to reveal personal data individuals might not want to be shared. The smart locks, as well as the system used to store their data, can also be hacked, revealing sensitive data to even more parties that tenants do not want to share this information with. Landlords can also take advantage of this data, as they can track the habits of their tenants and use the information to discover minor lease violations that can get these tenants in trouble. In other words, smart locks give landlords an easy way to over-police their tenants at all times.

Additionally, some of these smart locks require smartphones to activate, and not everyone has access to a smartphone. As Trujillo and Schwartz noted, “forcing tenants to unlock their unit with a smartphone could exclude the 15 percent of the population who do not have a smartphone—disproportionately affecting older people and people with lower income. Renters, in general, tend to have less net worth than homeowners, and are more likely to be young, Black, or Hispanic.”

Privacy laws need to be put in place to regulate these smart locks. Something as simple as forcing landlords to allow tenants to opt for a traditional lock can solve a multitude of problems.

The privacy concerns regarding smart locks raised by the EFF have not been addressed in the corporate press. The only tangentially relevant coverage dates back to a USA Today article from 2020, which addressed the pros and cons of installing a smart lock.

Source: Mario Trujillo and Adam Schwartz, “Smart Locks Endanger Tenants’ Privacy and Should Be Regulated,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, April 4, 2023.

Student Researcher: David Miller (Frostburg State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)