We don't want to be Latch key-less kids: NYC tenants sue landlords for bunging IoT 'smart' lock on their front door

Residents claim net-connected, app-controlled system is harassment, surveillance

locked out

Updated A group of Manhattan residents are suing their landlord after a smart lock was installed on their apartment block front door. They claim they are being forced to use a phone app to get into their homes as a result of the gizmo's installation.

While upgrading the building at 517-525 West 45th St with a new elevator, the building's owner installed the Latch system, requiring tenants to use an app on a smartphone to get into the lobby, where tenant mailboxes are also located, it is claimed.

Crucially, the landlord also blocked up the traditional key locks, meaning that their only way in is to use a smartphone, it is alleged. The situation has infuriated those living there: that includes artist Mary Beth McKenzie, who has lived in the building for 45 years and whose work is displayed in a number of New York City art museums, including the Smithsonian.

She told the New York Post that her 93-year-old husband has effectively become trapped in their apartment because he doesn't have a smartphone. He can still access the stairwells, which can be entered without going through the Latch-protected lobby, but struggles to make it up the three flights to his apartment and wants to use the lobby's elevator. "For 45 years I’ve had a key. And now, we can’t get keys," she complained.

There are other problems with the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-connected Latch system: when installing the app, users agree to a huge list of terms and conditions that grants the application access to personal information on their handsets. The residents also claim the landlord can access this information and track tenants' movements via the software.

That has angered another tenant, who is one of the five suing the landlord in the US city. "Once I come into the building using Latch, the landlord is immediately notified," said Charlotte Pfahl, who has lived in the building for 43 years. McKenzie complains that the system feels like surveillance, and worries about being left out in the street if her phone battery runs out.

This being New York City, this is a whole other side to the story: rent control. Several tenants think the new system is just one more way to make older tenants who live in their apartments at rents far below market price move out, and so open the apartments up to those that will pay thousands of dollars more per month.

Clash

McKenzie and Pfahl have clashed with the current owners several times, including suing them in 2017 after they started adding new apartments to the building. That lawsuit claimed that the new apartments were illegal, that the landlord had failed to bring their current apartments up to code, and that construction work had caused serious damage to their own apartments, including holes in the ceiling and 10 instances of flooding.

Around the same time, the building elevator stopped working, and the landlord allegedly threatened to cut off access to the roof – something that the tenants claimed was a "negotiating tactic" to get them to stop opposing the expansion plans.

The disputes have gone back and forth within New York's Environmental Control Board. And Loft Board. And Department of Buildings, with numerous violations listed. The most recent alleged violations involved the smartphone entry.

The landlord was informed that blocking up the keyhole to the lobby door was a building violation. So they removed the cap but have not issued any keys to residents, so while there is now an accessible lock, there are no keys to open it. Hence the latest lawsuit, which demands normal physical keys to the front lobby.

It's not just NYC facing this issue, however. Infosec researcher Lesley Carhart, who is based in Chicago, has been complaining for months about her landlord's decision to install smart locks.

Her issue was not about walking up flights of stairs or having a smart phone, however, but the fact that she feels such locks represent a serious security risk: as has occasionally been demonstrated when people have found ways to hack into smart locks.

Pluses

And there are a myriad of other concerns. According to one report, one of the new pieces of advice given to women that find themselves in women's shelters is to disable any IoT equipment in their homes so the devices can't be used to harass them.

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As for the landlords, the advantages to a smartphone app system are significant. They no longer have to swap out locks when tenants leave, or worry about getting their keys back. They can block tenants who fail to pay their rent.

Building owners can get a log of entry into and out of their building and so, potentially, improve security and don't have to worry about lost keys. Such systems typically allow tenants to buzz someone in from their phones, reducing hassles for everyone.

The landlord in this case claims that the GPS function on the Latch system can be disabled and so their tenants shouldn't worry about being tracked.

But, ultimately of course it comes down the tenant-landlord relationship and its associated tensions that have existed forever. It is the landlord's building but at the same time, it is the tenants who live there and pay rent. Smart locks and IoT devices are just the latest battleground in which this difficult relationship is playing out. ®

Updated to add

A spokesperson for Latch has been in touch to say its smart locks can be accessed via three means: a smartphone app, a doorcode, and a physical keycard. According to the residents' lawsuit, the app is their only option for entering the lobby, and are suing to get hold of the physical keys.

The tenants also claimed the Latch app can use their cellphones' GPS to locate them. A spokesperson for the software responded: "We never capture, store or use GPS location data of our users. Certain Android devices require GPS to be enabled in order to use the Bluetooth functionality upon which the Latch app relies, but again, we never capture, store or use any GPS location data.

"We do not compromise the security and privacy of our users. To maintain the safety in common spaces, property managers are able to see access events for common areas, in the same way as standard key fob and keycard systems work. We never share residents’ access histories of their private spaces, including apartment units, with property managers; this information is viewable only by residents."

On the security front, the smart lock biz also said it had not received any reports of its gear being hacked.

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