New York City Is Sacrificing Residential Safety for Unwarranted Privacy Concerns

Hodan Omaar May 17, 2021
May 17, 2021

(Ed. Note: The “Innovation Fact of the Week” appears as a regular feature in each edition of ITIF’s weekly email newsletter. Sign up today.)

Privacy panic has been swirling around New York. Many state policymakers have gotten caught up in the panic, evidenced by the more than 50 privacy bills introduced in the legislature since the beginning of the year. But last month, the frenzied rhetoric reached new heights when the New York City Council passed a bizarre bill that places strict rules on how owners of smart access buildings—buildings that use technologies like electronic key fobs, Bluetooth authentication on smartphones, or biometrics to control access—can collect, use, and store residential tenant data. 

The Tenant Data Privacy Act would require all owners of residential buildings that use digital technologies to provision access to residents, such as through electronic key fobs or biometric door locks, to obtain informed consent through writing or a mobile app. Additionally, building owners would need to provide a “plain language” privacy policy to tenants that details the data their smart access system collects, the third parties they share the data with, how they will securely store the data, and how long they will retain data for.

Unfortunately, this bill misses the forest for the trees. By myopically focusing on maximizing the privacy of New Yorkers in their homes, rather than on maximizing their overall welfare, the bill threatens to reduce tenant safety and exacerbate housing inequity.

The most important problem with the bill is it discounts the fact that smart access buildings make buildings safer. For instance, buildings that authenticate residents using electronic key cards can combat piggybacking, which is when an unauthorized person enters a building behind an authorized person, by only allowing tenants through particular doors and gates. Such controls can help mitigate the slew of sexual assaults that result from piggybacking in New York City. Digital authentication tools also enable more granular access controls. With digital keys, tenants can assign one-time access codes for maintenance workers and more easily revoke access from unwanted guests, which is a vital tool for people dealing with domestic violence.

But many landlords will be put off from adopting digital tools because of the unnecessarily stringent implementation costs the bill imposes. First, landlords would have to bear significant transaction costs to obtain affirmative consent from every adult and parent of a minor. Second, they would have to invest in data infrastructure that can deal with the bill’s data management requirements, such as deletion or anonymization of all tenant data within 90 days. Third, they would face increased legal risks as a single violation would make them liable for a penalty of up to $1,000 per tenant, plus lawyer fees. In effect, the law is making it too expensive for most landlords to protect residential tenants’ safety.

For those landlords in the city who do invest in digital tools, the increased compliance costs and reduced revenues would be passed on to renters in the form of higher rental prices, which are already among the highest in the country. However, while increasing rent might be feasible in New York City’s high-end housing market, the city’s public housing developments are restricted from doing so by affordable housing laws. Instead, additional costs would have to come out of funding for the city’s already cash-strapped housing authority (NYCHA). 

NYCHA has long struggled to keep up with even the most basic safety precautions in its public housing developments, which are home to 1 in 15 New Yorkers, most of whom are people of color. According to the city’s department of investigation, funding isn’t the only issue. The city has been slow to install security cameras and layered access controls in public housing because there is a complex approval process that consists of several agencies, which can take “months from funding allocation to installation—and in some cases years.” The proposed bill would only saddle the agency with even more red tape and make it harder for tenants in poorer neighborhoods to enjoy the improved quality of life digital tools can bring.

To be clear, privacy concerns about new technologies can be valid in some circumstances and policymakers should craft legislation to mitigate clear, provable harms while protecting innovation. But in this case, the harms landlords might pose with tenant data seem to be entirely imagined. “Will they use it to pry into your personal life? Will they sell it to marketers? Could it be used as an eviction tool? Will it be kept forever?” There is no evidence that any landlord in the United States has ever done any of these things, yet these hypothetical harms are the impetus for the proposed bill according to its cosponsor City Council Member Mark Levine.

It is clear that New York legislators are enthusiastic about stronger privacy laws but perhaps not stronger safety. Mayor Bill de Blasio should recognize that signing this bill into law will do more harm than good. The best thing he can do to help New Yorkers is to veto it.