Amazon’s Alexa for Landlords Is a Privacy Nightmare Waiting to Happen

Photo: Amazon
Photo: Amazon

You know that clip of Steve Carell from The Office where he’s shouting “No, God! No, God, please no! No! No! Nooooooooo!” That’s how I feel about Amazon’s announcement that it’s adding a new service to Alexa for landlords. It’s called Alexa for Residential that, according to Amazon, “makes it easy for property managers to set up and manage Alexa-powered smart home experiences throughout their buildings.”

Landlords can set special Alexa commands that will let their residents pay rent, submit maintenance requests, and manage other things that normally come with the territory of renting an apartment or other dwelling. And of course, it will still function as a regular smart speaker — dim the lights, get a weather report, all that jazz. Landlords can also remotely reset the device whenever someone moves out to give the device a clean slate for the next person.

Amazon claims in its press release that it’s taken the steps necessary to protect the privacy of residents. There’s just one issue that Amazon doesn’t address in its announcement: the Drop In feature on Amazon Echo devices.

Drop In allows one Echo user to connect to another Echo user’s device, as long as that user has granted them permission. They don’t even need to be in the same household. As long as both devices are connected to the internet, Drop In functions like a Zoom call. With this feature enabled, you will be able to hear anything within the range of the device, see anything on the other side, in the case of an Echo Show, and also transmit your voice or video feed to the other device.

When we reached out to Amazon for further clarity on the Drop In feature, a spokesperson brushed aside the concerns, saying there are safeguards in place and implied that this potential privacy-invading feature is entirely in a tenant’s control.

“Alexa communications features like Drop In do not work when a device is in vacant or occupied mode. Property managers or smart home integrators cannot use Drop In,” the Amazon spokesperson said in an email. “Drop In will only work if a resident links their in-unit device to their Amazon account, once they’ve linked their account, they’ll be able to use all the features Alexa has to offer, including drop in for contacts who have granted permission.”

But we all know landlords are, by default, shitty. (If yours isn’t, congratulations!) And some will likely take this as an opportunity to be shittier than ever.

For example, your landlord could connect their own account to your device, giving them control over the Drop In feature. As long as the device is not in Do Not Disturb mode, their call will connect, which is especially problematic if you’re not home and Do Not Disturb mode is off. There are no laws that I’m aware of that treat this in the same vein as physically entering your home without permission, but in my mind, it is in some ways worse than the same thing. My landlord would be able to hear or, in if the device is an Echo Show, see into my home — my home that I am paying them to rent, which should afford me privacy from remote viewing.

A lot of landlords and property management companies also require periodic, physical inspections on your home, generally to make sure you’re keeping the place in a habitable state or if they suspect you’re violating your lease for any reason. They generally still have to get your permission to enter, but if your unit comes with an Echo Show, they could require you to enable the Drop In feature to see inside your home without having to physically be present. As far as we can tell, there’s nothing from stopping landlords from putting a stipulation in the lease that residents have to have Drop In enabled. Sure, that likely a legal battle waiting to happen — but someone’s privacy has to be violated first, so it’s no less a problem at the moment.

This is all on top of the fact that the entire smart-speaker-that-comes-with-your-rental phenomenon is still strange to me for a few reasons; Amazon cites a study by the National Apartment Association, which says “84% of renters want an apartment with smart home amenities,” and “61% of whom said they would pay a monthly fee for a voice assistant” as part of its justification for offering its new Alexa for Residential service.

First of all, who is this 84% of people who would be ok with their landlord having access to the smart speaker in their home? Never mind the possibility that employees at Amazon could be listening to a recording of whenever you pay your rent. Amazon says that property managers will not “have access to any customer data” and “voice recordings are automatically deleted daily.” Residents will also be able to connect their personal Amazon account to the device and control their privacy settings. Still, having a landlord-owned smart speaker — or even a personal smart speaker — in my home is a big hell-fucking-no from me.

Second, who the hell wants to tack on any additional amount to their already outlandish monthly rent? Especially those of us who live in certain parts of California and New York. I don’t care if it’s an extra $15 a month. First-month’s rent (usually around $2,700 or more) plus a $700 deposit, plus a $700 pet deposit, plus a $70 monthly pet rent (if you have pets) is enough.

More than enough for people who are trying to move in the middle of a pandemic, too. There is nothing a smart speaker can offer me that I can’t already do on my phone or through the resident portal on my complex’s website. Besides, if I wanted an Alexa device in my home, I can get one myself, no landlord needed.

I’m also worried that landlords might begin to require their residents to use the Alexa device for non-spying purposes. My apartment complex already requires residents to pay via its online portal, which is managed through a company called Zego, which is now a subsidiary of PayLease. In 2018, Amazon teamed up with Zego to roll out Alexa smart home devices to 30,000 S2 Capital apartments. My worry is that, given enough time and “demand,” my landlord will want to put an Alexa device in my home — to which, of course, my first question will be “Do I have to use it?” If I don’t, that sucker is getting dismantled and put in a box in my closet if my landlord won’t remove it from my home.

Editor’s Notes: The terms of this service in Australia is currently unknown.