Last week, a group of tenants in New York City settled a suit against their landlord, winning the right to have a physical key and lock to their apartment building. Their landlord had previously installed a smart lock on their apartment building door, which enables doors to be opened by doorcodes or an app, and the tenants had raised privacy violation concerns that their landlord could access data on their comings and goings. This settlement is the first of its kind with regard to determining limitations to landlords’ use of “smart home” devices, including internet-connected devices such as Google Nest or Amazon Echo that enable the remote monitoring and controlling of home electronics and conditions.
While there is nothing new about landlords surveilling and harassing tenants, smart home technology enables landlords to far more aggressively use surveillance to exert economic pressure on tenants and, as a result, gentrify neighborhoods. Landlords could, for example, use smart locks to track a tenant’s guests’ comings and goings and then use that data to argue that an illegal subtenant is living in an apartment without permission of the landlord — a scenario that has been used as grounds to evict in many cases. Similarly, facial recognition entry systems could be used to intimidate tenants into leaving or to track their presence, and argue that a rent-stabilized apartment is not their primary residence, tactics that have also been used as grounds for eviction.
Smart home and surveillance technology pose more than just privacy violations for tenants; they demonstrate the intersection of capitalism and surveillance. They are emblematic of how surveillance technology can be used to subvert forms of social welfare and market control in the service of a financial bottom line. They also bring to light fundamental questions within the tenant-landlord relationship of who has the right to control one’s space and home.
Last month, a group of more than 130 tenants living in two large rent-stabilized buildings in Brooklyn filed a legal opposition to their landlord’s application to install a facial-recognition entry system in their buildings. The facial-recognition lock system that the landlord informed them would be installed would require that tenants allow the lock to scan their face each time they wanted to enter the building. The tenants, who are mostly black and low-income, raised concerns that landlords would have access to digitized records of when they came and left the building, that landlords would have access to their facial biometric data, and that research shows that facial-recognition systems do not work accurately for those who do not have the physical features of a white man.
These forms of smart home and surveillance technology can only fuel the existing problem of landlords, especially in New York City, harassing and evicting tenants in order to raise rent prices. New York City landlords of rent-stabilized apartments have long used surveillance tactics such as security cameras to surveil and harass tenants into leaving in order to increase an apartment’s rent, ultimately deregulating it.
In New York City, landlords can only increase the rent for a tenant in a rent-stabilized apartment by 0 to 2 percent each year. In contrast, if a tenant of a rent-stabilized apartment leaves, then the landlord can implement an 18 to 20 percent “vacancy rent increase” between the old and new tenant.
In addition, if landlords in New York City can inflate the rent of a unit above $2,700 per month, they can then petition to have the unit deregulated and no longer subject to state-mandated price control. Thus, as has been heavily documented, landlords find ways to systematically evict tenants. Popular and common eviction tactics are alleging that a family member living with the leaseholder is an illegal subletter and alleging that the apartment is not the tenant’s primary residence, both of which, if proven, are legal grounds for eviction. And with increasingly advanced surveillance technology like smart locks and facial-recognition software, these existing eviction tactics can be amplified.
Two years ago, Congress voted to allow Internet Service Providers to gather internet history and data on their customers and sell that internet usage data without customers’ consent. Reports indicate that companies such as Google and Amazon may even be listening in on and recording the conversations people have in their homes. Concerns have been raised that tech companies are using data gathered by smart home devices to sell to advertisers and target ads to customers.
In addition, a recent study found that smart home devices are vulnerable to hacking and surveillance, and stories of smart home systems being hacked have proliferated in recent years. A few months ago, a family in Illinois found out their Google Nest system was hacked when their thermostat increased to 90 degrees and someone began cursing at and calling one family member the n-word through their security camera. In Long Island, New York, a mother found out her Google Nest security cameras had been hacked when she walked in on someone talking to her five-year-old son through them.
Beyond these issues of privacy and economic exploitation, these cases bring up deeper questions of ownership and autonomy over public and private space. While a rent-stabilized tenant who has lived for decades in the same building may not legally own their apartment, they inhabit and establish a presence in their homes that should grant them, at the very least, the right to exist freely in their spaces.
In the Brooklyn case, five tenants convened to discuss how to inform other tenants who had not heard of the landlord’s impending plan to install a facial-recognition entry system. A few days later, the five tenants, who were black women, received a notice from the building’s property management group with pictures of their meeting taken on the building’s extensive security-camera system. The letter singled out one tenant who refused to disperse at the demand of a security guard, stating “Ms. Johnnie Mae Robinson stated this was her building and she will stay there. Let me make something clear, this is not your building, you are a resident of our building.”
The tenants in the smart lock case demonstrated desire to assert ownership and “control” over their homes. As an attorney for one of the tenants in the case said of their victory, "This agreement takes back for the tenants some control over the technology used to control entry into buildings.”
The irony of these smart home technologies is that they were created for wealthy people as a means of quotidian convenience. But they have become systems that are used on poor people as a means to exert social control and economic exploitation. As tech corporations develop more and more sophisticated home-surveillance technologies, questions of individual autonomy and the right to exist freely in one’s space will continue to arise at the intersection of race, housing, and capitalism.