Privacy: rights and responsibilities

In property management, real estate agencies store and have access to personal information on tenants and owners that is important and sensitive. Plus, tenants have certain rights when it comes to enjoying privacy in the home they’re paying rent for. Our Kolmeo team explores the responsibilities property management businesses and their employees have to protect personal data and how to get the balance right between looking after owners’ interests and giving tenants the privacy they deserve.

Be data aware

In recent times there’s undeniably a heightened awareness of how important personal data is. From the Consumer Data Right here in Australia to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation in Europe, there are many laws now in place about the collection, storage and management of data. This means all sectors, property management included, have responsibilities around data protection they need to take seriously.

Through our Kolmeo network, we’re also seeing behaviour from tenants and owners that suggests data is a big issue for them too. In the past, nobody hesitated to share their salary or marital status as part of a tenancy application. Owners didn’t have an issue with handing over bank details – how else would their rent get paid? Now we’re seeing some reluctance and loads of questions about the sort of data property managers have been collecting for years.

These concerns are justifiable. At a time when identity theft is a high-profile issue that can wreak havoc on personal finances, people are very aware of how their data could be used against them. And even where data falls into the hands of sales and marketing teams, rather than fraudsters, most of us don’t want the cold calls and unsolicited emails.

So, it’s easy to see why it’s important for property managers to be both sensitive and responsible where personal data is concerned. These three areas will help you stay on top of the basics for privacy and data protection:

1. Educate your team

Talking to your team about their responsibilities and obligations around personal data is a must. This should be part of their training and be incorporated into all processes.

First and foremost, your business has a responsibility to be able to show someone how their details came to be on your database in the first place. Plus you have a primary purpose obligation – you can only use that data for the purpose it was collected for. To use it for any other reason, you’ll need to seek explicit consent from that person.

2. Protect your paperwork

Another important area to cover in training is how to be savvy about data that’s stored on paper. Employees need to understand the danger of leaving a copy of a drivers’ license at reception where anyone could see it. And if you store hard copies of tenancy applications or property files, make sure they are kept in a locked filing cabinet. A pile of paper documents waiting to be scanned, should be under lock and key too. Needless to say, when paper records are being thrown out, shred them first.

3. Tighten up your tech security

Skimping on technology security could be a tempting way to keep costs down. Buying a single license and allowing staff to share the same login is certainly one way to make savings. But this gives you no visibility over who has access to which data.

Server security for your emails should be as robust as possible. You’ll be passing around a fair bit of sensitive financial information through this channel so you can’t afford for your mail server to be hacked. The Kolmeo app is another window property managers have on all sorts of customer, financial and property data. That’s why we’ve invested in bank grade security and regularly carry out penetration testing, which involves getting some talented hackers to make sure data we hold can’t be compromised.

At Kolmeo, we make it easy for everyone to have their own login. We also create an admin role for the person in an agency who can manage permission levels, adding and taking them away according to how much access each team member needs. This gives each business the flexibility they need to limit functions to keep data access aligned with roles and responsibilities.

Privacy vs discretion

The rules and regulations for keeping data safe mean property managers have no margin for error. But at least there is clarity on the responsibilities around the collection of personal information. However, an agency’s duty of discretion can often be more of a grey area. While there may not be legislation to follow, that doesn’t mean that a code of decency and good conduct can’t be applied.

Take a tenant’s job status as an example. If they happen to mention concerns about being made redundant, is it right and fair for you to alert the property owner? It could be said their tenant’s ability to pay rent is at risk and you have a responsibility to pass this on. On the other hand, the tenant has a right not to have this personal story shared with anyone. This is one of many situations where discretion and good judgement are called for.

Speaking of judgement, rental inspections are another area where respect for a tenant’s right to be comfortable in their home can come into conflict with your duty to report on the condition of a property to an owner. Damaged paintwork is certainly something to log. A pile of dirty dishes in the sink, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily a sign that your tenant is neglecting to take care of their home.

If photographing or recording during inspections is part of your routine, you should be aware of your responsibility not to capture anything that could personally identify your tenant. Taking a snap that includes a diploma certificate on the wall or a bill on the fridge is a no-no.

As a property manager, you’re in a position where people need to trust you. Owners have engaged you to do what you reasonably can to make sure tenants are able to pay rent and are keeping the property in good order. It can be tricky to tread the line between this responsibility and being considerate of a tenant’s right to privacy and comfort. But it’s important to do what you can to perform the essential duties of a property manager and be decent to tenants too.