America’s Favorite Door-Locking App Has a Data Privacy Problem
Latch is on a mission to digitize the front door, offering apartment entry systems that forgo traditional keys in favor of being able to unlock entries with a smartphone. The company touts convenience — who wants to fiddle with a metal key? — and has a partnership with UPS, so you can get packages delivered inside your lobby without a doorman. But while it may keep homes private and secure, the same can’t be said about tenants’ personal data.
Latch — which has raised $96 million in venture capital funding since launching in 2014, including $70 million in its Series B last year — offers three products. Two are entry systems for specific units, and one is for lobbies and other common areas like elevators and garages. The company claims one in 10 new apartment buildings in the U.S. is being built with its products, with leading real estate developers like Brookfield and Alliance Residential now installing them across the country.
Latch CEO Luke Schoenfelder declined to be interviewed on the record for this article, but in a statement pointed to the fact that the company provides three methods of entry — unlocking through a “door code,” a Bluetooth-smartphone connection, or a physical keycard — as evidence of how it accommodates varying sensitivities to the technology. But he also said in the statement that these different options are “at the discretion of each building’s policy,” so all three methods aren’t guaranteed in every building. And where they are, it’s still difficult to avoid using a smartphone. The door codes are obtained through the Latch smartphone app and keycards require jumping through additional hoops. The Latch website instructs users interested in obtaining one to contact their property manager for their building’s policy on keycards.
The CEO confirmed landlords can see data regarding access events for systems in common areas. This is one of the main grievances raised in the lawsuit currently unfolding in a rent-regulated building in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan, where tenants say Latch is tracking them as part of a pattern of harassment by the owners to push them out of their apartments so they can rent them at market rate.
“Once I come into the building using Latch, the landlord is immediately notified,” Charlotte Pfahl, one of the five plaintiffs, told the New York Post.
“The entire system is coercive and carries huge risks for abuse, discrimination, and serious harm, which of course will hurt the most vulnerable populations the most,” she says.
After building an industry on exploitative data practices, tech companies are increasingly coming under fire for how they use customer data — and the lack of transparency around those uses. The issue has been front and center at least since Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April 2018, and now the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced it plans to investigate technology companies’ collection and use of consumer data. On a recent earnings call, Facebook said it expects to spend between $3 billion and $5 billion to settle the FTC’s ongoing investigation into its handling of user data, which shows how potentially massive such penalties could be. Other tech giants, from Amazon to Google, are also feeling the heat as 2020 candidates make tech regulation a central policy debate.
“Technology is really great at solving some problems, but its use in certain situations carries intolerably high risks, all of which are exacerbated by the fact that the United States still does not have a comprehensive data privacy law that could provide necessary safeguards for the collection and use of data,” Stepanovich says.
Unlike Facebook, Google, or Amazon services, though, Latch represents an opportunity to look at data privacy through something tangible: the barrier between yourself and your home. By forcing you to sign a privacy agreement to open your front door, Latch helps us see how the internet of things has brought bad data policies off-line, normalizing invasive technology. It’s a new perspective on what’s really at stake when we sign that dotted line.