Smart Locks Could Make Heartless COVID Evictions More Efficient

from the dumb-is-smarter dept

Like most internet of broken things products, we've noted how "smart" door locks often aren't all that smart. More than a few times we've written about smart lock consumers getting locked out of their own homes without much recourse. Other times we've noted how the devices simply aren't particularly secure, with one study finding that 12 of 16 smart locks that they tested could be relatively easily hacked thanks to flimsy security standards, something that's the primary feature of many internet of broken things devices.

In addition to being easily compromised, there are additional layers of concerns arising from the use of such locks. Privacy experts, for example, say many smart lock vendors' terms of service are overly broad, allowing the sharing of too much data with valued partners and landlords. And as smart locks become the norm in "smart" cities, there's also growing concern that such technology could make it easier than ever for landlords to evict users without much in the way of transparency or renter rights.

While the smart technology in this case is advertised as an increase in efficiency, ethicists studying the rise of "smart" cities worry that the detachment created by the removal of physical interactions will make it easier to distance a landlord from the impact of his decision:

Adam Henschke, an applied ethicist working on areas that cross over between ethics, technology and security at the Australian National University, tells me that one of the concerns that people like himself have with smart cities is exactly this — the power that such technologies have over access to basic goods and services. Henschke admits that while it’s not uncommon for landlords to have the power to change people’s locks as part of normal eviction processes, this technology obviously raises a bunch of other issues.

"His first concern is that it could be psychologically easier for a landlord, real estate agent or building manager to lock a person out. “If this is done in person, then whoever changes the locks likely has to confront the tenant in person,” says Henschke. “Whereas, as this is being done remotely, it can be psychologically easier to make the decision to lock the tenant out.”

That said, the piece includes some quotes by folks who believe existing legal protections will simply extend to protect renters and homeowners under an automated system where eviction becomes less of a physical affair and simply a cold few lines of code. And you'd certainly hope that's the case. But when you look at some of the new companies being created to make evictions a more efficient, gig-economy affair, fused with massive COVID-19 financial headaches, smart locks, and an apathetic/incompetent government, you have to pause and at least think about the potential ramifications of making eviction too automated and efficient:

"Civvl aims to marry the gig economy with the devastation of a pandemic, complete with signature gig startup language like "be your own boss," and "flexible hours," and "looking for self-motivated individuals with positive attitudes:" "FASTEST GROWING MONEY MAKING GIG DUE TO COVID-19," its website says. "Literally thousands of process servers are needed in the coming months due courts being backed up in judgements that needs to be served to defendants."

You'd hope that existing law and oversight steps up to protect the consumer, but as we work to make the eviction process a more automated and gig-worker backed affair (as usual only thinking about any potential problems after the fact if at all), it's kind of hard not to think we're going to find some creative ways to make existing problems worse.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: covid, evictions, iot, smart locks

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Sep 2020 @ 11:41pm

    Economy of Greed

    it's kind of hard not to think we're going to find some creative ways to make existing problems worse.

    That's the whole point of the US economy now. Make the rich richer, the poor poorer. If you think it's gonna get better before it gets worse, think again. The US has long claimed that corporations have no societal responsibility while also arguing that government regulations should be done away with. That is a recipe for both the current political climate and the hardships US society faces. Left to their own decisions, by the laws of Capitalism, corporations will never stop victimizing society because helping society is more expensive. Corporations exist to make a profit in the US and nothing else. Until that mind set changes, and harsh penalties for harming society are enforced, expect the societal problems to only get worse.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Tanner Andrews (profile), 29 Sep 2020 @ 12:39am

    Existing Law May Bar Self-Help Evictions

    It certainly will depend on your state, but at least some states have barred what we call self-help evictions. That is, the LL makes it impossible or unreasonable for the tenant to remain in the property. This can be done by cutting utilities, changing locks, disabling locks, disabling gate access, and by other means specific to properties.

    The problem is that the tenant may be at least temporarily out on the street. The remedy here is either 3 months' rent or actuals, whichever is greater. So ultimately it can come back to bite the LL if the tenant lawyers up.

    The computer-driven nature of the lock does not appear to have any significance under the statute here. It would still fall within the rubric of ``prevent[ing] the tenant from gaining reasonable access to the dwelling unit'' and so would appear contrary to the form of the statute.

    Many LLs count on tenants not knowing these things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2020 @ 2:29am

    The "heartless" characterization is bizarre. I never considered an automated cash desk "heartless" because it does not give bread to hungry people that cannot pay. But it is fair - if you cannot pay, you cannot take food in a supermarket, you go to a food bank instead. The system should be transparent and give protection to tenants through fairness. Roboautomated procedures for approving mortgages got us the subprime crisis, lets hope that laws will prevent roboevictions to take place. But "heartless" has no particular role in it, it's all about the implementation of the procedure.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 29 Sep 2020 @ 3:51am

    Humanity... keeping the top of of the poor enforcing the will of the rich on the even poorer for min wage.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 29 Sep 2020 @ 3:56am


    So the asshole who evicted a mom & her kids by sending a print out of a smiling emoji pointing it itself with its thumbs that said guess whos moving??? YOU! Happy 5 day notice or some shit.

    Heartless does play a role in it.

    Yes they haven't paid the rent, did you need to walk in and piss in all of their boxes as they were moving out?

    Did you need to "invent" damage you claim was caused by the people you evicted so you could scam people on go fund me?

    Yes poor thing you've not been getting full rent, but you might have not noticed the world is pretty much upside down. The odds of someone having a job & being able to move in and pay you rent is really fscking low right now. Yes it sucks to get to where you need to evict people, but costs you nothing to treat them with humanity, rather than some parasite whole stole your leveraged to the hilt income source.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2020 @ 7:02am


    " But it is fair - if you cannot pay, you cannot take"

    When they work full time and they are unable to pay - is not fair.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2020 @ 2:55pm

    Re: Re:

    but this was my point all along - you do not need technology (or even a phone, for that matter) to be an asshole. If used in the proper way, a good process can protect both tenants and owners, by focusing on what people need: protection of their rights on both sides. If you knew what the situation were, and the income of the family etc, you could target govt help, for example, or make it easier to find an alternate rent, or take the murkiness out of the process, instead of leaving these delicate situations to can kicking and disputes. Eviction is too serious to be emotional about it, that is what I am saying, nothing else. Keeping a focus on both parties rights and needs is definitely something an automated process can do - if it is programmed in the right way and not abused by one side or the other. It is not necessarily heartless to use algorithms to optimize the organization and processes of a federal aid agency - an automated eviction process should be run with the same spirit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Sep 2020 @ 4:13am

    Re: Re:

    I work full time and there are lots of places I really like and I cannot afford to rent... are you suggesting it would be fair if I tried to? I don't think there was anything "fair" in the subprime crisis, robo-mortgaging people into owning houses that they could not afford, then dumping all the losses on the fed balance sheet (which is, on the general population).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Bergman (profile), 3 Oct 2020 @ 4:30pm

    Re: Existing Law May Bar Self-Help Evictions

    If you are illegally evicted remotely by making your key stop working, what prevents you from going to a rental business, renting a drill, and drilling the lock?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Bergman (profile), 3 Oct 2020 @ 4:37pm

    Re: Re:

    My state requires that my landlord give a ten day notice to pay up or vacate if something goes wrong with my rent payment and the landlord doesn't have it before the deadline - something that has only happened to me six times in 15 years. One was a bank error, four were because the landlord lost the check after receiving it. The one that was even vaguely my fault was due to the landlord changing the due date for rent without informing me.

    If payment is not made within 7 days of the 10 day notice, a 3 day notice is sent. At the end of the period, eviction begins unless payment is made.

    That's fair. But my landlord loves delivering the 10 day and 3 day notices at the same time in the same envelope. Which always leaves me wondering - are they being bizarrely efficient on saving on postage, or do I only have 3 days to pay before they evict me?

    Supposedly, the timers run from receipt of the notices, but given they're already breaking the law by sending me the 10 day and 3 day notices together, I always worry a bit that they're counting from the day they mailed the notice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)


Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Discord

The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...

Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.