Need to know
- The data breach comes amid growing concerns about the collection of renters’ data and how it's used
- According to experts, no one really knows what happens to stolen data or how long it might be used for illicit purposes
- CHOICE consumer data advocate Kate Bower says the final review of the Privacy Act is the right time to improve consumer data security
Real estate agency Harcourts recently announced to its customers that a major breach of its database may have occurred in its Melbourne city franchise, revealing names, addresses, banking information and other personal details, according to reporting by the ABC.
The hack of Harcourts' system comes amid rising concerns about the wholesale gathering of renters' information by real estate firms that may lack the security protocols to keep it safe.
'A big risk'
Dr Chris Martin, a senior research fellow at the UNSW City Futures Research Centre, recently commented on the issue, saying, "they're collecting a lot more personal information, with arguably not a whole lot of purpose behind it. It's a big risk if all of that information falls into the wrong hands."
Applicants might not want to hand over that level of information because of privacy concerns, but they're in a position where they have little choiceDr Chris Martin, senior research fellow, UNSW
Martin's views are in line with the growing alarm among consumer rights groups and privacy advocates, including CHOICE, about the unchecked collection of information from prospective renters.
"The sorts of questions being asked in tenancy applications are getting more intense," Martin says. "Applicants might not want to hand over that level of information because of privacy concerns, but they're in a position where they have little choice.
"In tight markets, as we're seeing in Australia now, landlords and agents feel they can ask for more and more."
Stolen data could be anywhere
According to media reports, Harcourts says the breach occurred in its software server provider, Stafflink, but the provider has denied this.
In earlier investigations, CHOICE reported that one of the chief concerns with data breaches is that no one really knows what the sensitive personal information will be used for, where it will end up, or how long it will remain in the hands of hackers.
'Just the tip of the iceberg'
"The shocking Harcourts data breach is just the tip of the iceberg in the real estate industry," says CHOICE consumer data advocate Kate Bower.
"Renters are routinely forced to give up vast amounts of personal data to simply get a roof over their heads. We know that real estate agents and landlords regularly ask for bank statements, employment history, and previous addresses – and with third-party property apps joining the fray, renters are having their social media and previous tenancy experiences tracked too.
Renters shouldn't have to choose between getting housing and having their personal information leaked by hackersKate Bower, CHOICE consumer data advocate
"Renters shouldn't have to choose between getting housing and having their personal information leaked by hackers – just as patients shouldn't fear their health data being outed because of a breach at Medibank or Australian Clinical Labs.
"With the final report of the Privacy Act review soon to be delivered, the federal government has a critical opportunity to reshape how much data businesses collect and for how long."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.