For homebuyers, sellers and homeowners, National Consumer Protection Week (3/3-9/19) started early. Today, a headline in the Wall Street Journal exposed yet another wave of Facebook privacy violations — this time revealing that Realtor.com sent Facebook “…the location and price of listings that a user viewed, noting which one were marked as favorites.”
Real Estate Cafe has been writing about the need for real estate consumer bill of rights, information fiduciaries, and a new deal on real estate data for years but the urgency has never been front page news until today.
Surveillance Capitalism in Real Estate
My hope as a real estate consumer advocate is that this is where the investigative reporting and regulatory responses begin. Consumers, including millions of house hunters and every household in the nation, would be surprised — maybe shocked — to learn how real estate apps track their personal data and sell them as leads. In some cases, apps track online behavior and access financial data to score buyer leads. In other cases, predictive (some would say predatory) apps track data to identify who is most likely to sell. Most troubling, other apps boast Stalker 2.0 functionality that can track emails of past clients and flag those that are going through some kind of life transition that might become a business opportunity for their clients.
Real estate apps not only track personal data, in-house dashboards used by mega-brokers allow them to see confidential information on both sides of the transaction so they can sell properties before they are listed on the MLS and collect a double payday. Not just sell properties, but potentially manipulate over-eager buyers in BLIND bidding wars. See the discussion on need for a bidding war backlash.
Hopefully, these practices underline the urgent need to address real estate and smart home use cases in the scope of national privacy legislation being considered by the US Congress.
Need for Information Fiduciaries
A diagram of Zillow’s “Living database of all homes,” which includes personal data about homebuyers, sellers, renters, and homeowners, shows the massive scope of their empire and raises questions about consumer privacy. Their aggressive new push into flipping homes complicates that with questions about conflicts of interest. Both underline the need for disclosures and privacy protections modeled on the European Union’s GDPR — General Data Protection Regulation.
Over the past two years, RE2020 — an OPEN collaboration site dedicated to cocreating a new money-saving real estate ecosystem — began threads to protect consumers:
1. Update of the Homebuyer Bill of Rights, #REBillOfRights, originally drafted in 20 years ago;
2. Extend agency duties beyond the real estate transaction to the need for Information Fiduciaries.
This exchange between Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain underlines the need for information fiduciaries:
What we do know is that Mark Zuckerberg seems confused by his own company’s actions. Asked by Zittrain about his pet idea that Facebook be expected to act as a “information fiduciary” where it is morally and legally responsible to look after people’s data in their own interests, Zuck replied: “The idea of us having a fiduciary relationship with the people who use our services is intuitive.”
But he then argued that the company’s “own self-image of ourselves and what we’re doing is that we’re acting as fiduciaries and trying to build services for people.” Which will be news to anyone that has been following Facebook’s concerted and persistent efforts to hide what information it gathers, and what it does with that information.
Zuckerberg even gave an example of what would be going too far: “If you want to talk in metaphors, messaging is like people’s living room, and we definitely don’t want a society where there’s a camera in everyone’s living room.” To which, of course, Zittrain pointed out that Facebook is literally selling a new device, Portal, that is an internet-connected camera for people’s living rooms. Zuck sort-of recovered by noting that his device uses encryption.
Congressional hearing & local events
In less than a week, the US Senate Committee on Commerce will host a public hearing to “examine what Congress should do to address risks to consumers and implement data privacy protections for all Americans.” Their press release says “In an age of rapid innovation in technology, consumers need transparency in how their data is collected and used.” That’s like a sports team only playing defense, but an understandable role for regulators. On the offensive side of the ball, innovators in the private sector will eventually cocreate a real estate ecosystem that empowers consumers to manage and monetize their personal data to save an estimated $30 billion dollars annually. That part of our call for a “New Deal on Real Estate Data”, aka #NewDealREData
Eager to connect with fellow consumer / privacy advocates who are open to that vision and want to set the emerging real estate ecosystem on a Real Estate Consumer Bill of Digital Rights. If the hearing is broadcast on C-Span, want to host a watch party on Feb 27th in Boston, perhaps at Harvard’s iLab or Smith Center in Harvard Square?
http://bit.ly/DataPrivacyHearing (share via social media)
Just learned of an event at Harvard’s Berkman Center on Feb. 26, 12-2pm entitled, Waking Up to the Internet Platform Disaster. Let’s use that event to revisit how we can use NCPW to expose real estate as the sleeping giant of the consumer movement.
http://bit.ly/DigitalWakeUP (share via social media)
Footnote: Thanks to Pat Rioux, former Buyer Agent, Listing Entry-Only pioneer in Massachusetts for catching with the tweet below. Affectionally known among real estate consumer advocates as Ms. Information, Rioux is now a health data expert, and we hope she continues to keep an eye on privacy issues at the intersection of Health & Housing data. Hope you can see, this is worse than we thought!