A new startup wants to take a “deep dive” into the private social media activity of prospective tenants—their chats, check-ins, how many times they’ve posted words like “pregnant” or “loan”—and score their “personality” for their potential landlord. Why would anyone let this happen? Because “people will give up their privacy to get something they want,” Steve Thornhill, co-founder of the British startup Score Assured tells The Washington Post.
For a bulk subscription fee, the landlord could “optionally” require all prospective tenants to grant Tenant Assured full access to their Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn profiles. Then “analytical software” starts mining everything they’ve ever done there.
How many times did they check-in to that bar? What online retail logins do they use? How often has their relationship status changed? Do they partay? That and a disconcerting more gets assessed into a “financial stress level” as well as a breakdown of five personality traits—“extraversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness”—and the report is sent to the landlord.
Thornhill is aware that some things—like age and pregnancy, which are protected statuses under the U.S. housing discrimination law—can’t legally be used as factors in determining someone’s qualifications as a tenant. “All we can do is give them the information,” Thornhill told The Washington Post. “It’s up to landlords to do the right thing.” Wink wink.
Is this illegal? “Clearly it raises alarm bells,” Seth A. Miller of Collins, Dobkin & Miller LLP, which specializes in housing and landlord/tenant law tells me in an email:
“In NYC, there is an expanded list of categories of people that cannot be discriminated against: not just race, national origin, religion, ethnicity and gender, but also source of income and lawful profession. Generally, asking a tenant about whether he or she is a member of such a group can be evidence of discrimination. [Tenant Score] facilitates this kind of discrimination. If that’s the idea, then the designer of [Tenant Score] may be legally exposed, despite the claim that it is only passing information along. Even if the makers of [Tenant Score], and the landlords who use it, manage to evade legal liability, it should be made illegal. People should not be forced to join social media just to rent an apartment, and landlords and employers should not have the right to view posts that were not written for them to read.”
Even though the landlord doesn’t directly view the social media posts, the tenant report includes “activity times” and whether they mentioned words like “no money,” “being poor,” “staying in,” “terrorist,” “fraud” and “justice.” Seth A. Miller:
“I would think that all of the metadata that could be generated from analyzing a person’s private social media posts would fall into the category of material that was not intended by the author to be seen by anyone but the intended recipient of the posts. That doesn’t make it illegal, but that is what makes it so creepy.”
By the end of July, the company expects to be offering specialized versions of the service to everyone from employers and HR departments to parents shopping around for nannies. Some day, Thornhill imagines, you won’t hire a dog sitter or book an Airbnb without first viewing their social media dossier, as compiled by his company.
There is a variety of ways in which the startup’s aspirations would fuck you. Some of them aren’t even intentional, just wonky. For example, when a Telegraph Money ran the software on their own people—who happen to post things with the words “loan” in it, being money reporters—the algorithm gave them some negative points in the financial stability department.