Need to know
- The privacy policies of rental platforms such as realestate.com.au's Ignite as well as Ailo, Tenant Options, Rental Rewards, Snug, 2Apply and Simple Rent allow them to access excessive personal information from renters
- In the absence of regulation to protect them, people who rent are forced to surrender their data as part of the price of finding a place to live
- CHOICE is calling for better protections for renters as these platforms increasingly dominate the market
The power imbalance between renters and landlords in Australia is already well documented, but for many people in the rental market, the proliferation of RentTech platforms has shifted the balance even further toward landlords and agents.
RentTech platforms are fast replacing more traditional methods for both rental property applications and for making rental payments and many renters have no choice but to use them.
And many of these platforms collect information that goes well beyond what's needed to assess a tenant's ability to pay the rent.
Some begin capturing personal information the minute you apply and keep track of interactions with agents and landlords throughout your tenancy
Real estate businesses can then use this information for advertising, marketing and other purposes over which the user has little or no awareness or control, raising concerns about the security and application of this personal data.
RentTech platforms perform many functions for landlords and agents, and the amount of data they capture is wide-ranging. Some begin capturing personal information the minute you apply and keep track of interactions with agents and landlords throughout your tenancy and beyond.
Renters forced to use RentTech platforms
Some rental agents seem to be telling tenants that using an app is non-negotiable.
If a prospective tenant refuses to use the app, they're likely to be barred from applying for a place to live through that agency. The rental agent will simply move on to the next applicant who is willing to use their preferred systems and surrender the information the app demands.
In a recent CHOICE national survey, 41% of renters said they were pressured into using a third-party service to apply for their rental.
As a case in point, according to the Tenants Union of NSW, one renter who we'll call Olivia was told by a rental agent that she had to use the RentTech app Snug to apply for a property, and that the matter was non-negotiable.
Olivia didn't want to create a Snug account but soon discovered that other rental agents in the area had partnered with Snug and were making the same demand. Nevertheless, she continued her search for a place to live without signing up to a RentTech app, making it that much harder to find a home.
In effect, renters are stuck in the middle of a business arrangement between the rental app makers and landlords or agents, both of whom collect and use their personal data to further their own businesses.
Current laws 'light and ineffective'
In a rental market where agents and landlords already have the upper hand, there are currently very few regulations to give renters the power to push back against the growing use of these invasive tools.
It's especially problematic when simply applying for a place requires you to answer a long list of personal questions via a third party app, but if you refuse you are unable to apply at all.
According to Leo Patterson Ross, CEO of Tenants Union NSW, "The application process is an unregulated area. We have very light and ineffective discrimination laws that do apply. But they're also laughably easy to get around. Essentially they're not there. The questions they're allowed to ask are basically unlimited. That's where all these innovations are coming from."
New national research from CHOICE has revealed over 40% of renters have been pressured to use RentTech to apply for a home – putting them at risk of data breaches, extra costs and exclusion from housing. Some tenants are also being forced to use these third-party rental platforms, such as 2Apply and Snug, to pay rent, request maintenance and communicate with agents or landlords.
Rental platforms collecting personal information without limits
The policy goes on to say that if you access one of its services using Facebook or other social media platforms, Ignite and the other REA Group apps will collect your social network data, including user name, site ID, profile photo and email address.
Trying to find a place to live in Australia can be a daunting task. RentTech platforms are making the process even harder.
Ignite and the other REA apps also collect "non-personal information" from prospective renters, including "but not limited to" whatever their activities on REA's websites might reveal.
At well over 5000 words and 15 pages long, it's fair to say most prospective renters in today's frantic market would accept REA Group's privacy conditions without reading them.
We were given no choice with 1Form, because the property agent would not accept applications any other wayRental applicant, Jose
A renter we'll call Jose expresses the view of many struggling to find a place to live but wary of providing personal information via a RentTech app. (Jose lodged her application before 1Form was succeeded by Ignite.)
"We were given no choice with 1Form, because the property agent would not accept applications any other way," Jose says.
"But I felt uncomfortable sending them details of our investments, cash in bank, more than one identity verifiers, utility bills, marriage certificate, motor vehicle registration details, tenant ledger report, references, copy of pension card, and so on. I felt we could easily be identified by simply showing our photo ID on driver's licences."
What are they doing with our data?
If you opt in, Ignite and the company's other platforms will also "share your information with third parties so they may contact you directly about their offers, promotions, goods or services".
I felt uncomfortable sending them details of our investments ... utility bills, marriage certificate, motor vehicle registration details, tenant ledger report, references, copy of pension card, and so onRental applicant, Jose
According to REA, the technologies it deploys to harvest your data on its websites – including cookies, web beacons, measurement software and other tools on its platform – are used to improve "the quality of our products and services", including advertising. The company's service providers "and other third parties" can also use your data for this purpose.
Those other platforms are extensive. REA Group operates realestate.com.au, one of the largest property sites in Australia. That breadth of coverage means that REA has the potential to begin building a profile of you from the minute you begin browsing on their site. While they say this activity is captured separately from application information, it's not clear what the distinction actually is between your profile and your application.
In short, REA and other rental businesses may be improving their business models on the back of the data they force you to provide for free.
Handing over your data for nothing
Ross of Tenants Union NSW says in some cases prospective tenants end up filling out Ignite for properties represented by real estate agents who don't even accept that particular platform.
Whoever has that information can do whatever they like with it, and they got it for freeTenants Union NSW CEO Leo Patterson Ross
"So that person who's filled out the form has handed over a huge amount of information that isn't even for the primary purpose of renting, because the agent's not even looking at it," Ross says. "So whoever has that information can do whatever they like with it, and they got it for free."
What data are we giving away?
Having to give basic personal information including name, address, telephone number and email address for rental purposes is understandable. But rental platforms in general ask for a whole lot more. (On some platforms certain information is optional).
Some platforms also use various technologies to find out more about you, based on your internet activities. On top of basic information, the platforms we reviewed collect the following personal details:
REA Group responds
"REA Group does not commercialise rental application data as part of its other services and websites and does not use tenancy application data for the purposes of targeted advertising," the spokesperson says.
But the company's response raises the question: why collect so much data then?
Data for sale
In 2020, a case brought by the ACCC led to a $2.9 million penalty for the health data business HealthEngine. The business was found to have been sharing personal patient information with private health insurance brokers, including names, dates of birth, phone numbers and email addresses.
If they are not upfront with how they will use consumers' data, they risk breaching the Australian Consumer LawFormer ACCC Chair Rod Sims
"These penalties and other orders should serve as an important reminder to all businesses that if they are not upfront with how they will use consumers' data, they risk breaching the Australian Consumer Law," former ACCC chair Rod Sims said at the time, adding that "the ACCC is very concerned about the potential for consumer harm from the use or misuse of consumer data".
CHOICE calling for stronger protections
We're calling on the government to strengthen consumer protections in the Privacy Act (currently being reviewed by the federal Attorney General) by insisting that businesses, such as rental payment platforms and services, collect and use only the data they need to provide the service.
Businesses are grabbing and cashing in on people's data, all under the guise of helping them find a homeCHOICE consumer data advocate Kate Bower
"Businesses are grabbing and cashing in on people's data, all under the guise of helping them find a home," says Kate Bower, consumer data advocate at CHOICE. "This exploitative practice should be banned."
"We are calling for urgent reform of the Privacy Act to protect renters from the harms of RentTech. We need clearer rules on the kinds and amount of information that businesses are able to collect and to ensure that the information is used fairly and reasonably."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.