Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tenancy database operator offers new way to invade your privacy

Tenancy databases (aka tenant blacklists, bad tenant databases) are in the news today, with the revelation that the big tenancy database operator, TICA Pty Ltd, has hit upon a brand new way to invade the privacy of tenants.

This is TICA's new 'Virtual Manager' service – a bit of software that TICA is selling to real estate agents.

(Tenants Winston and Julia consider finding a new place to rent.)

Here's how it works:
  • An agent enters their current tenants' names and other personal info into the Virtual Manager, and 'flags' them.
  • Whenever one of these tenants applies for a tenancy with another TICA agent (and the agent does a search of TICA's database), an automatic email alert is sent to the current agent. The email alert contains the location and contact details of the agent who took the application.

In other words, the Virtual Manager tips off the agent when a current tenant applies elsewhere. This is a gross invasion of a person's privacy. When a tenant decides to move out, the agent is entitled to receive a termination notice. They are not entitled to receive prior email alerts and tip-offs.

The potential consequences of the Virtual Manager tip-off service are worrying. Having received the email alert, the current agent might then contact the other agent and cruel the tenant's application, or take some other form of revenge (no repairs, bothersome inspections, etc, etc). A particularly creepy agent (or indeed, anyone who should get their hands on the service) might also use it to receive email alerts about the possible movements of ex-girlfriends, spouses, etc. But even where it is not abused like that, this service, in its ordinary operation, tells agents about things that are none of their business.

TICA boss Philip Nounnis says TICA cannot police the way agents use the Virtual Manager – nor can the Government, because the Virtual Manager is an 'internal database' for each agent who buys it, and internal databases are excluded from the current regime of tenancy database regulation and, for that matter, from the soon-to-commence Residential Tenancies Act 2010.

With due respect to Mr Nounnis, the Tenants' Union disagrees. It's not 'internal.' Each application of the Virtual Manager is intergrated with TICA's other databases. (After all, where do the email alerts come from? How does the system know to send an email alert about any particular person?)

Our view is that any NSW agent who enters a tenant in the Virtual Manager and flags them for email alerts is listing them on a tenancy database in breach of the Rule of Conduct under the Property, Stock and Business Agents Act and, when the new Residential Tenancies Act 2010 commences, in breach of that Act too. The NSW State Government should act now to make it clear to agents that using TICA's Virtual Manager in this way is unlawful.

3 comments:

  1. Further to the potentially malign effects of TICA's Virtual Manager, I just spoke with a domestic violence support worker who outlines yet another scenario.

    Say Josie Smith decides to leave her violent partner and the home they rent; she applies for another tenancy with another agent in another place; ping - the email alert goes to the current agent who rings the house and says to Mr Smith 'what's all this about a tenancy application in such-and-such a place?' Josie gets belted and her plan to escape violence is ruined. Nice one, Virtual Manager.

    The DV support worker said she often deals with women who are still at home and getting ready to leave, and is worried about precisely that scenario for her clients.

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  2. The Tenants Union should try educating tenants to do the right thing and pay there rent on time and leave a property clean and tidy upon vacating instead of encouraging tenants to lie on tenancy application forms.

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  3. For the record, the Tenants Union of NSW does not encourage fibbing on tenancy application forms... If you'd like to know more, a copy of the TU's 'Starting a Tenancy' fact sheet can be found at http://www.tenants.org.au/publish/factsheet-02-starting-tenancy/index.php

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