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CEO urges cyber vigilance as questions mount over real estate data rights

By Kyle Robbins
04 November 2022 | 13 minute read
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An industry executive has weighed in on the need for the sector to take a more cautious approach to cyber security following the revelation of a recent data breach. 

Charlotte Pascoe, chief executive officer at Stockdale & Leggo, has implored the real estate industry to be vigilant in the wake of the damaging attack, which saw an unknown third party gain access to a Harcourts office’s rental property database, which “holds personal information relating to landlords, tenants, and trades”.

She implored that “it is everyone’s responsibility to keep data safe”.

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“It’s scary how advanced hacking has become — so, now more than ever, we have to be aware of how forgetting to turn something off could end in someone breaking into our entire digital ecosystem,” she said.

Ms Pascoe, who believes education starts from the top, has explained that every staff member in the Stockdale & Leggo network had been advised to take extra precautions to ensure cyber security as a result.

“We have to use this as an opportunity to educate and upskill staff across our offices. We have asked every director in our organisation to go through and update their security processes for their technology ecosystems, and we have asked everyone within the organisation to take today to ensure they are protecting the businesses, and the data,” she said.

Similarly, Dr Chris Martin, senior research fellow from the University of NSW City Futures Research Centre, has called for the government to review tenancy laws in order to protect tenants from data breaches such as those experienced at Harcourts.

Dr Martin argued that real estate companies are “collecting a lot more personal information, with arguably not a whole lot of purpose behind it”. Adding, “it’s a big risk if all that information falls into the wrong hands.” 

He outlined that even if applicants were reluctant to hand mounds of personal information, which can range from bank and identification documents through to pet profiles and social media accounts, often they were left with little choice. 

Dr Martin believes the scope of existing tenancy and privacy laws is limited given “tenancy laws in most states and territories place few restrictions on what agents can collect”, arguing that it’s “not just a matter of protecting tenants’ data from hackers, it’s an issue for housing access”. 

“Questions about source of income, social security recipient status, and whether you’ve applied for social housing can be used to deny you a tenancy, and it’s not unlawful and not regulated in any jurisdiction,” he said.

He believes more should be done “in our residential tenancy legislation to regulate the tenancy application process and the information collected by agents, landlords and third-party intermediaries”. 

Dr Martin said one solution to the problem would be the review of the tenancy application process and the development of a standardised application with pre-set questions, which excludes “the unreasonable, intrusive, and risky questions landlords and agents may be asking now”. 

Moreover, he believes a strong argument can be made in favour of modest regulation of landlords via registration and licensing requirements, which could result in landlords completing basic training to understand their obligations and responsibilities to landlords. 

He explained the changes are not unprecedented given Australia already has registries as part of its rental housing system, such as the boarding house and residential parks sector, while also citing similar landlord registration requirements already in place in parts of the United Kingdom. 

“It would give necessary information for policymakers about who is entering the sector and give tenants some reassurance there’s some visibility of their landlord’s history and conduct — good and bad.” 

Dr Martin concluded that these reforms would minimise the power imbalance that currently exists between landlords and tenants, especially in a market as tight as Australia’s.

“The fact that it always happens that way — that it’s landlords and agents extracting more and more from tenants — shows how asymmetric the relationship is and why we need stronger residential tenancy laws,” he said.

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