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British startup wants to help landlords, employers spy on you via social media

One of the disturbing trends we’ve covered at ExtremeTech over the past few years is the degree to which companies spy on customers, end-users, and people who shop for things. Much of this monitoring is done covertly with minimal disclosure, to help ensure that customers don’t become aware of how their casual habits have been data mined and tracked. One British startup, Score Assured, wants to make that mining explicit and required for anyone looking for a place to live or a job, via Tenant Assured and Recruit Assured, respectively. Only Tenant Assured is currently live, so that’s the product we’ll focus on here.

If you want to know how Tenant Assured describes itself in full, you can check its video below, but here’s a partial transcript.

“How do you identify that perfect tenant? Traditional data… only reveals a person’s past, or at best, the present… We think real personalities can be found in much more insightful stuff, like Tweets, comments, likes… the things people love to buy, and the places they check in. Even in the people they choose to spend their time with. Tenant Assured is a new kind of reference, one that takes as many digital touch points as a potential tenant is willing to grant access to, mashes them up with the traditional information you already have, and creates a personality score that’s much more reflective of the individual.”

Elsewhere, the website describes how this service works. A tenant is asked to log into their social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram accounts via Tenant Assured’s secure portal. The accounts themselves are then scraped for the following information:

Tenant Assured’s entire pitch is that it can use all of this information along with your credit history, driver’s license, and payment histories to create a better, more informed profile, which your landlord than peruses to see if they want to rent to you or not.

TenantAssure

The Washington Post, which broke this story, actually gave the service a test run and reports: “My [the author, Caitlin Dewey] personal tenant report includes a list of my closest friends and interests, a percentage breakdown of my personality traits, a list of every time I’ve tweeted the words ‘loan’ and ‘pregnant,’ and the algorithm’s confidence that I’ll pay my rent consistently.”

The service’s founder, Steve Thornhill, reassures Dewey that if she’s living a “normal life,” she has nothing to be worried about. Yet while this a UK product and therefore subject to British, not US privacy laws, the fact that both “loan” and “pregnant” are flagged is proof that Thornhill’s ideas about what constitutes a normal life is rather different than most people’s. A recent report from the Federal Reserve found that 46% of American adults could not cover an emergency expense of $400 without selling something or borrowing money. While that number has been slowly decreasing in recent years as the economy recovers, the fact is, both loans and pregnancies are common in American life (and presumably in British life as well).

Both your pregnancy status and your age are protected under US law, but Thornhill shrugs this off, telling the WP reporter that “All we can do is give them the information,” Thornhill said. “It’s up to landlords to do the right thing.” We’ve seen this kind of cozy partnership between corporations and law enforcement agencies abused in other contexts; what Score Assured is peddling is another wink-wink-nod-nod take on the same idea.

Score Assured is trying to sell the idea that it’s just another data provision product, and that the impetus is entirely on landlords not to use the information provided for purposes that are illegal under US law. While US consumers have the right to dispute their own credit report information and to request that data every year, Score Assured offers no method of disputing its own conclusions.

Tenant Assured dodges all of this by claiming that tenants opt-in to the service and aren’t forced to use it. But it’s easy to see how such requirements could be imposed by landlords or employers themselves. If all of the landlords within a certain area or job field require applicants to submit their social media profiles for checking, it becomes extremely difficult to dodge the requirement. Again, Thornhill doesn’t see this as an issue, telling Dewey “People will give up their privacy to get something they want.”

Jobs and places to live aren’t typically classified as something people “want.” They’re classified as things people must have if they want to achieve any degree of success, happiness, or stability in life. But in this brave new world, there’s apparently nothing people can’t be compelled to hand over in exchange for the right to shelter or the right to work.

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