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Data security and collection in the real estate industry

by Confidentiality of information, Data protection & privacy breaches

The real estate industry is a prime target for a cyberattack that could jeopardise millions of Australian’s personal data.

The industry is notorious for its invasive data collection practices. The Privacy Act doesn’t cover the whole of the real estate industry and those that are, are finding loop holes to obtain personal data. In addition, each state and territory have their own tenancy laws.

There is an undersupply of affordable rental properties in most capital cities and the cost is constantly going up.

The threat of ending up on the Residential Tenancies Database or the ‘blacklist’, which is part of the billion-dollar data industry that the real estate industry feeds, is a threat lauded over renters.

All of this gives real estate agents have the power, leaving renters no choice but to hand over their data. This is done through online tenancy application platforms. The sum total of this data collected per application can add up to over 100 points of identification.

Below is a collection of news articles on the real estate industry:

‘Data breach waiting to happen’: Warning for real estate agents and renters on personal info requests

Years of work and rental history, bank statements, self-funded background checks, social media profiles and pet resumes are just some details that prospective renters have to provide to secure a property.

Experts have raised concerns about the potential risk of an Optus-style data breach waiting to happen in the real estate industry as it amasses more and more sensitive information on rental applicants.

Read more: Domain, 2 October, 2022

Real estate agents keep as much privacy data as Optus – Should you be concerned?

Last week’s Optus data breach shocked the nation, but real estate industry collects just as much if not more of your privacy data.

When you’re desperate for your next rental unit or your dream home, you are also unlikely to have a level playing field in saying no even questioning how much detail you should give up.

Samanthan Floreani from Digital Rights Watch warns it is well worth your effort to stop and think again before providing everything willy-nilly.

Read more: ABC News, 4 October, 2022

A real estate agent data breach would be devastating for renters. They collect too much personal information

Thanks to Optus, millions of people are now acutely aware of what can happen when companies don’t take privacy and security seriously. But telcos aren’t alone in collecting and storing too much of our personal information. The real estate industry is often overlooked in conversations about data security, but it is one of the most invasive, with potentially devastating consequences for renters across the country.

Many small real estate agents aren’t covered by the Privacy Act, and those that are appear to be seriously massaging the law around data collection and handling that is “reasonably necessary”.

Each state also has its own tenancy law, which may place some limitations on what agents are allowed to collect. For example, in Victoria, real estate agents are not allowed to require any information that relates to a protected attribute without telling you why in writing. This includes age, gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, profession, religious belief and marital or parental status. They’re also not allowed to ask for bank statements that contain daily transactions.

And yet, real estate agents continue to regularly ask for this information.

The trouble is, it’s not just about what is legal – it’s also a question of power. As long as agents have the ability to make you homeless, renters will do what they ask, and regulations mean very little if they are poorly enforced.

Read more: The Guardian, 4 October 2022

Rental applicants across the country pressured to pay for their own background checks

When Louise Camona was told her rent would be rising by $120 a week, she knew she, her husband and their four kids were going to have to find somewhere else to live.

“Paying that amount is going to break us in the end,” she said.

When Ms Camona found a property she liked, the online application form urged her to pay for her own background check to help her application “stand out from the pack”.

Ms Camona could choose not to pay, but she would have to tick a box that says “no thanks, I don’t want to verify my identity” and her “star rating” as an applicant would be capped at four out of five stars.

The 2Apply form, designed by tech company Inspect Real Estate, was also asking for extensive private information including the name, gender and age of their children, and the make, model and registration of their car.

Read more: ABC News via MSN, 3 November, 2022

Real estate firm breached, signatures and IDs stolen

Privacy advocates are calling for an overhaul of the way renters’ personal information is stored after real estate firm Harcourts Melbourne City revealed that a recent cyber attack may have compromised identity documents and other details of its clients and their tenants.

Harcourts has blamed the breach on the compromise of an account of an employee of real estate service provider StaffLink, which provides property and task management software to help real estate agents run more efficiently.

Based on the company’s description of events, an employee account was compromised after an employee used a personal device for work purposes, rather than using their more secure company-issued device – allowing a cyber criminal access to Harcourts personal data.

Read more: Information Age, 3 November 2022

Tenants’ rights: What are your options when landlords raise your rent?

When interest rates go up (like they did for the seventh consecutive time on Tuesday), we’re often quick to think about the impact on homeowners who will be slugged with higher borrowing costs.

However, it’s of equal concern to one-third of Australians – often younger and on lower incomes – who rent their homes and have started to be thwacked with significant rental increases from landlords, partially as a result of the repeated rate rises.

Compounding this is the current record-low national rental vacancy rate of just 0.9 per cent, meaning it’s much harder for renters to find a new place if their rents go up exorbitantly.

Read more: The Age, 3 November, 2022 (paywall)

Advocates had warned of the dangers of a real estate data breach. It just happened.

Australian real estate agency Harcourts has revealed it was affected by a cyber attack last month, with the personal information of tenants, landlords, and tradespeople potentially exposed.

In an email sent to customers of the Melbourne City franchisee of Harcourts, the company said it became aware on 24 October that an “unknown third party” had accessed its rental property database.
Harcourts said on Thursday that the breach occurred when the account of a representative at service provider Stafflink, which gives the franchisee administrative support, was allegedly compromised and accessed by that unknown third party.

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