Key to success: Tenants finally get physical keys after suing landlords for fitting Bluetooth smart-lock to front door

Big Apple residents weren't too appy with apartment block's high-tech security system

Updated The owners of a Manhattan apartment block have agreed to give their tenants mechanical keys to end a court battle over a keyless smart-lock system.

The landlords of 517-525 W 45th Street in New York installed the Latch smart-lock on the front door of the building when it was recently renovated. The gizmo allows tenants to, for instance, use a smartphone app to unlock the doors to the lobby, mail boxes, and elevators – something that can be useful to let visitors in if you live several floors up.

But tenants were unhappy with the Latch app, and felt their privacy could be violated if the software was used to track their comings and goings. "Once I come into the building using Latch, the landlord is immediately notified," said Charlotte Pfahl in March when she and her fellow tenants decided to sue after the landlords refused to hand over a physical key to the front door. She had lived in the building for the past 43 years.

We spoke to Pfahl today about the case, which her lawyers this week hailed as "a huge victory for these tenants and tenants throughout New York City."

She told us there are eight doors to the building, though the landlords refused to give them a key to open one of them – the door that leads to the lobby and elevators. If residents can't use the elevators, they have to walk up several flights of stairs, which is a pain. Latch earlier this year told us its smart-lock can be unlocked using the app via Bluetooth, a doorcode typed into the device, or a physical keycard waved against it, though according to the residents' lawsuit, the app was their only option for entering the lobby. A spokesperson for Latch claimed the tenants' lawsuit "contained many inaccuracies about how Latch works."

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In any case, it wasn't just access to the elevators, and the building owner being alerted when she entered and left the apartment block, that worried Pfahl. She noted a patent filed by Latch in 2017, and granted last year, describes a system that can be used to track individuals as they move about within a building, and feared the technology was in use or would be used in her apartment block.

The patent reads: "Specifically, the disclosed systems can provide a real-time view to building management of all guests expected to visit and all guests currently visiting through individual users' guest logs and instructions. This can be especially important in multi-unit buildings, whereby the disclosed system can track which doors the user and the user's guests have accessed and which path they have taken within the building."

The system even foresees targeted advertising to individuals based on their physical movements. And despite the landlords' claims to the contrary, the tenants submitted an affidavit from the head of an internet consulting and security company that outlined how the app and system could be potentially used to track users and sell valuable information about their physical movements.

For what it's worth, Latch CEO Luke Schoenfelder acknowledged back in March that "certain Android devices require GPS to be enabled in order to use the Bluetooth functionality upon which the Latch app relies," though stressed: "We never capture, store or use GPS location data of our users."

Pfhal told us she was concerned about the potential for abuse across New York, and the rest of the country. "I don't think people understand what is going on. Who reads 84 pages or privacy terms and conditions to find out how incredibly intrusive it is?"

The system and the data that can be taken from it are, of course, incredibly valuable to landlords – especially if they wish to make it easier for them to provide short-term rentals – but have obvious and severe privacy implications for tenants. As a result, Assemblymember for New York State Linda Rosenthal has already said she will sponsor new legislation that would put restrictions on what can be done with such systems.

Not just keys

The issue of requiring tenants to use trackable apps to enter their homes is not the only use of modern technology that is worrying tenants, however. There are also legal challenges over the use of facial recognition technology in New York, and San Francisco in California this week said it was opening up a proposal to ban facial recognition software from the city altogether.

In this latest case, the tenants settled out of court rather than pursue the case all the way through to trial after they felt they had achieved their main goal: a judge-approved deal under which the tenants will be given physical keys. The landlords declined to comment to the media.

The residents' lawyer, Michael Kozek, of Ween & Kozek, congratulated the tenants for "fighting back" against the forced use of such systems. "Hopefully they will be an inspiration for other tenants to fight back. It should not be the norm in New York City that landlords are permitted and allowed to intimidate tenants under the guise of a claim that these measures are necessary for security, when in fact they are just being used to force tenants out of their homes."

Pfahl told us that the landlords provided her and the other tenants with physical keys on Tuesday night, hours after the judge's approval of the settlement. We asked her whether she would continue to use the app. She laughed: "No." ®

Updated to add

This case has now got the politicians involved and new legislation may be on the cards.

“The Hell’s Kitchen residents in this case were not asking for keys to the city, merely keys to their own homes. Today the court upheld that right in a profound decision with implications not just for their security and building access, but for their data privacy rights,” Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal (D/WF- Manhattan) told The Register.

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