June 9, 2016 at 9:56 AM
There's a scene in the dystopian scifi novel "Ready Player One" in which the protagonist glimpses the dossier of personal information a major tech company has gathered on him. It includes his height and weight, his browser history, his address — even several years of his school transcripts.
We're still several years away from that vision, thankfully, but a new British startup called Score Assured has taken a big step in that direction: The company wants to, in the words of co-founder Steve Thornhill, "take a deep dive into private social media profiles" and sell what it finds there to everyone from prospective dates to employers and landlords.
Its first product, Tenant Assured, is already live: After your would-be landlord sends you a request through the service, you're required to grant it full access to your Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and/or Instagram profiles. From there, Tenant Assured scrapes your site activity, including entire conversation threads and private messages; runs it through natural language processing and other analytic software; and finally, spits out a report that catalogues everything from your personality to your "financial stress level."
My personal tenant report includes a list of my closest friends and interests, a percentage breakdown of my personality traits, a list of every time I've tweeted the words "loan" and "pregnant," and the algorithm's confidence that I'll pay my rent consistently.
"If you're living a normal life," Thornhill reassures me, "then, frankly, you have nothing to worry about."
In fact, Thornhill sees his product as empowering both landlords and tenants: the former, to make more informed decisions about whom they rent to and spot lies on applications; the latter, to present a fuller, more accurate picture of themselves than might be available in a credit report or background check.
But I'm still pretty worried. Acutely so.
It's old news, of course, that people in positions of authority — landlords, hiring managers, college admissions counselors, you name it — increasingly scope out social media as part of standard background checks. But Score Assured, with its reliance on algorithmic models and its demand that users share complete account access, is something decidedly different from the sort of social media audits we're used to seeing. Those are like a cursory quality-control check; this is more analogous to data strip-mining.
It's not just the amount or detail of data that's problematic, either. Tenant Assured reports include information such as whether you've mentioned a pregnancy and how old you are, which are both protected statuses under U.S. housing discrimination law. ("All we can do is give them the information," Thornhill said. "It's up to landlords to do the right thing.")
Meanwhile, unlike credit reports — which you may, under federal law, request every 12 months — Tenant Assured doesn't give users any way to view their ratings or dispute misleading data.
Make no mistake: The data will mislead. Among the behaviors that count against your Tenant Assured "credit" percentage — i.e., how confident the company is that you'll pay rent — are "online retail social logins and frequency of social logins used for leisure activities." In other words, Tenant Assured draws conclusions about your credit-worthiness based on things such as whether you post about shopping or going out on the weekends.
Thornhill's response to these criticisms is that Tenant Assured asks permission before it does any analysis: In that way, he argues, it's not much different from a background check or credit rating. Of course, we have consumer protection laws to regulate both those things, in large part because they have such an outsize impact on consumers. Regulators also have recognized that although such checks may technically be "opt in," they're effectively not optional for those who don't have the luxury of only choosing landlords, jobs or loans that don't require them, or who work in industries or live in areas where such checks are standard practice.
These are early days, of course, and Tenant Assured is only Source Assured's first product. By the end of July, the company expects to be offering specialized versions of the service to everyone from employers and HR departments to parents shopping around for nannies. Some day, Thornhill imagines, you won't hire a dog sitter or book an Airbnb without first viewing their social media dossier, as compiled by his company.
There is always the possibility that it won't catch on, of course, or that, as has happened when other companies infringed on private online spaces, consumers will rebel. But Thornhill is pretty unconcerned.
"People will give up their privacy to get something they want," he said.
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