The Null Device

Private-sector parole for tenants

Being a tenant in the free-market Anglosphere is likely to get a lot worse soon; a new British start-up has created a system offering landlords' continuous deep surveillance of their tenants' online lives to determine whether they are likely to be asset risks. The system, named Tenant Assured, involves requiring tenants, as a condition of tenancy, to link all their social media accounts to a system that data-mines their posts and messages, looking for keywords and metadata and feeding them into an algorithmic model for determining the tenant's personality type and the risk of them defaulting on rent or otherwise adversely affecting the landlord's assets. Tenant Assured appears to greedily harvest a lot of data for its model; when the landlord looks at the report on one of their tenants, status updates or messages mentioning loans, lack of money or phrases suggestive of penury like “staying in” show up under “financial stress”, and words like “prison”, “steal” or “justice” show up under “crime”, while histograms of the tenants' activity times on weekdays and weekends are shown (do they throw parties/lead a chaotic lifestyle, or are they responsible hard-working serfs who get up at six and are in bed by 11, and thus a good financial risk?)
Among the behaviors that count against your Tenant Assured “credit” percentage — i.e., how confident the company is that you’ll pay rent — are “online retail social logins and frequency of social logins used for leisure activities.” In other words, Tenant Assured draws conclusions about your credit-worthiness based on things such as whether you post about shopping or going out on the weekends.
Tenant Assured is in operation in the UK, and is being launched in the US soon; it is likely to be welcomed with equally open arms in free-market anglocapitalist strongholds like Australia, where tenants are not deemed to need any rights beyond those naturally trickling down from the invisible hand of the market. The system is said to be opt-in, which means that one always has the choice of telling the landlord who insists on using it where to stick it and find another one who does not insist on it (which may involve anything from paying a human-dignity premium to the Sartrean radical freedom of starving to death under a bridge, emaciated but unbowed).

Of course, there is a chance that such an intrusive system would be found to be in violation of human-rights laws (like the ones Britain's Tory government wants to pull Britain out of); if it isn't, the chances of parliament, which is dominated by buy-to-let landlords (who comprise 40% of MPs, compared to 4% of the general population) passing any laws to restrict it are vanishingly slim at best. After all, we're a free-market society, something something light-touch dynamic self-regulation something, and heavy-handed regulation would destroy the wealth that (mumble mumble) trickles down to the very tenants it's meant to protect; also, personal responsibility. In Australia, there is no bill of rights and nothing like the European Convention of Human Rights, so there'd be fewer impediments to such a system being imposed. In the United States, the Constitution would offer little protection, as it only restricts the government from oppressive measures, making room for a vibrant market in free-enterprise oppression.

The system currently requires tenants to provide access to their social media profiles (presumably the tenancy contract would be drafted as to make withholding accounts grounds for eviction and/or forfeiture of the deposit, if not further legal sanctions); what happens to the data is opaque and could be updated. If, for example, the operators train a neural network to determine probability of drug use from selfies, or emotional stress from changes in music consumption, such capabilities could be added later. But why stop there? It's almost certain that the tenant would own a smartphone, running either iOS or Android. And legally there is no reason why a rental contract could not require them to install and run an app on their phone which tracks their location, flagging up whether they're spending time in dive bars, visiting pawn shops or have started sleeping in until noon on weekdays rather than travelling to an office by 9:30am. (The app could be styled with a nice-looking interface allowing the tenant to contact the landlord and flag fixtures in need of repair; if it looks like it's meant to help the tenant, they may not recognise that it's there to control them.) And so, the relationship between landlord and tenant starts looking like the ancient feudal relationship between a lord and one of his peasants passed through Jeremy Bentham's panopticon; the subtext is: those who don't own property or significant wealth are, at best, on parole.

If this takes off, and becomes the norm for non-wealthy tenants, the social implications could be interesting. For one, it will make all the services, like Facebook, which it touches useless for casually socialising. (In a Free Market, where all tenants are competing against each other to get and keep desirable flats—or, indeed, to win desirable tenancies from the sucker who let their game slip and got logged showing poor impulse control one time too many—maintaining a profile optimised to avoid whatever the algorithm's looking for will become paramount, and there'll be no slack for posting anything off-message.) In such a system, posting to Facebook (or Instagram, or Twitter, or whatever) will be a bureaucratic chore, an act of reporting to one's unseen overseers framed as casually socialising with one's semi-fictitious clean-living friends. (Not posting anything may also get one flagged, so shrugging it off may work against one's interests.) Perhaps an underground industry of social profile doctors will show up; they'll keep up on the latest news and gossip about the surveillance capabilities and profiling algorithms, and for a monthly fee, will provide you with enough traffic to keep your tenant-credit score up. Meanwhile, actual socialising, hedonism, self-indulgence and discussion of worries will take place on encrypted channels and pseudonymous underground social networks, or other profiles, and people will start to carry two phones: the one the landlord knows about, and one which doesn't snitch. (At some point, a tenant will be evicted without deposit for failing to declare such an account or phone, as required in the tenancy contract; if they're lucky, it may form the basis of a court case.)

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