A data scandal looms

The advent of GDPR was a while ago now and agents may feel relaxed about it with good practices in place, but as Nigel Lewis points out, data ‘abuse’ can take many forms...

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Just a few weeks ago a tenant contacted me to ask that their name be taken out of a story I’d written about their landlord, who had been told to repay a substantial amount of rent to the them after it was discovered the property had not been licensed correctly.

She asked for the deletion of the whole article on the basis that my article had published her name and address and by not deleting it had infringed her ‘right to erasure’, even though the article was based in part on a public document – in this case a First Tier Tribunal decision – which had named her along with the landlord. Her request was politely refused on the basis that it didn’t fall within the Information Commission Office’s rules for journalists – who have a much freer hand to publish a private individual’s personal information in the public interest. But what this illustrates, and should worry estate agents, is that more and more members of the public are becoming aware about their data rights. And that includes property data.

While retailers may be dimly aware of our preferences for food, clothes or tech, agents of all sizes – as well as the industry’s growing tech giants – hold a very wide range of information such as address, price history, mortgage details, the incomes of those that live there, property value, rent paid and much more.

Selling to data brokers

Talking to several industry insiders it is clear that it’s become increasingly common for information and photos created about homes to be kept for agents’ own use or sold on to data brokers for business gain. Given this is happening, do the highly ‘generalist’ nature of the GDPR data rules really fit the property industry adequately?

GDPR, and the rules it requires agents and all other businesses in the UK to follow, focus very much on the capture, storing and processing of personal information that can identify them – but does not cover information about the homes they live in. After all, there are specific laws and rules about how agents must treat their customers – for example how and when offers from potential buyers must be passed on. So why should there not be an industry-specific set of rules on how agents, portals and software companies handle data about homes supplied to them by their owners, landlords or tenants?

The property industry is risking its ‘Facebook moment’…

This issue is most obvious when you look at the big portals, all of which publish the details of how much properties have been advertised for in the past, and the Land Registry data on the final selling price. The current Zoopla TV advertising campaign sums up the argument succinctly – people feel uncomfortable discussing how much they paid for a property, so why not just go and find out online instead?

While most of the public seem happy with this arrangement, they might be less impressed that their historic and even current activity within the housing market is being captured and used to pass on leads to mortgage firms for a fee, for touting purposes and to be sold to non-property businesses such as white goods manufacturers?

Surveys – an area of concern

One argument is that where data has a role in ensuring the better operation of the industry – such as the freely available EPC online register and the lists of PRS landlords most council’s put online too – then it can be justified.

Nigel Walley of the Residential Log Book Association, points out another area of concern… surveys.

He claims that it has become ‘standard practice’ for the mortgage industry to enable the data within valuation surveys to be sold to data brokers.

“The surveying company retains the intellectual property for the survey and the brokers aggregate the data and sell it on to portals and other proptech companies,” he says. “No homeowner is given the option to keep the contents private, or to assume ownership of the data.”

Many agents may say that this has all been going on for a long time and to date no one has been outraged enough to cause a fuss.

But the property industry risks its ‘Facebook’ moment. This came for the social media platform when during the 2010 it became clear the platform had been involved in a ‘data harvesting’ exercise facilitated by UK firm Cambridge Analytica to capture people’s personal details and then use it to target them with political advertising via Facebook. It nearly brought down Facebook and the company was fined heavily while its CEO Mark Zuckerberg being given a public roasting during an official investigation.

I am not suggesting that such a scandal would ever envelop a company within the property industry. But if a public debate were to be ignited about what agents do with property data, some argue largely without consent, it could damage their already shaky reputation even more. Maybe it’s time to tighten up this area of data handling?

What's your opinion?

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