What is smart tech?
‘Smart tech’ does not have a strict legal definition. The term generally refers to devices that use artificial intelligence (AI), computing, sensors, and similar to allow the device to perform the everyday tasks of their traditional counterparts in a more autonomous manner. Essentially, smart tech refers to devices that have enhanced user utility due to the modern technology they incorporate. Familiar examples include smartphones, doorbell cameras, smart fridges, and smart speakers.
What is the Internet of Things?
The ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) is a similar concept to that of smart tech. IoT similarly lacks a strict legal definition, but the term generally refers to smart tech and other electronic devices that are integrated (ie connected to other devices) via the internet or another network. The IoT allows these devices to exchange data and work together to achieve consumer outcomes - for example, by increasing someone’s enjoyment of their home.
Should landlords use smart tech in rentals?
Utilising the IoT in a rental property can certainly bring benefits. The utility that a collection of helpful, efficient devices offers tenants can enhance a rental property’s appeal. This can help it to fetch a higher rent and may promote tenant retention.
Some smart tech, including security cameras, doorbell cameras, and smart locks, can be useful tools for ensuring the security of a property and its inhabitants - to both the tenants’ and landlords’ benefit.
Smart tech may also help reduce energy use and, consequently, emissions and costs. For example, smart temperature controls (eg thermostats controllable from a smartphone or a tablet) can use data and remote management to manage heating and cooling in a way that minimises energy use.
Advantages of smart tech, such as these, can be significant. It can be a great idea for landlords to use smart tech - so long as they do so in accordance with the law.
Is it legal for landlords to use smart tech?
As smart tech is still a relatively new and constantly evolving phenomenon, the law relevant to its use comes from multiple sources and it is often applied in a very situation-dependent manner. This means that common smart tech items, such as doorbell cameras and smart thermostats, are generally legal, depending on how they are used.
Are smart thermostats legal?
Smart devices that control the heating and cooling in a property (eg remotely) are in themselves completely legal, and landlords may install them. They can certainly increase tenant utility and can help reduce energy bills. However, issues may arise if the tenant does not have full control over the temperature controls.
Firstly, if the tenant directly pays the relevant (eg electricity and/or gas) bills, it’s inappropriate for the landlord to have control over their use of heating and power.
If the landlord pays for heating and power (eg if it’s included in the rent), the picture is more complex. It’s still not good practice for the landlord to centrally control heating and cooling, but it’s not outright illegal. The Government’s guidance on English and Welsh landlords’ obligation to ensure residential rental properties are fit for human habitation (FFHH) recommends potential actions that landlords can take to mitigate the risk of unacceptable cold. These include the recommendation that the heating for a property can be controlled by the tenant. Comparable guidance does not exist in Scotland.
Centrally controlled heating is more likely to be appropriate in a house in multiple occupation (HMO), where different ‘households’ (eg individuals, couples or families) live in different rooms. In HMOs, having a third-party control the heating of common areas, rather than relying on the group reaching a consensus, may be beneficial. The Government’s Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) permits this but still recommends that tenants can control the temperature within their own spaces (eg their bedrooms).
When considering centrally controlled heating, landlords should also check for any rules that are specifically applicable to them. For example, a tenant’s Tenancy agreement may specify that the tenant is to have complete control of heating. Similarly, an HMO may be subject to specific rules about heating as a condition of a particular HMO licence. Such rules must be followed.
If a landlord does decide to control heating in their tenant’s home, this will only be legal as long as their doing so doesn’t result in conditions that breach any laws. For example, landlords in England and Wales have an obligation to ensure homes they rent out are fit for human habitation. This means ensuring they’re kept at a reasonable standard by preventing the occurrence of various circumstances, which include the property becoming colder or hotter than minimum/maximum satisfactory levels for a significant time. Standards aren’t specifically set, but regarding cold, keeping the indoor temperature above approximately 19°C is a good minimum. This is the temperature below which the risk of adverse health effects increases. A healthy indoor temperature is estimated at 21°C. If the landlord controls a smart thermostat and their management of the property’s temperature fails to meet appropriate standards (ie the property is considered unfit for human habitation), this use of smart tech would be illegal.
Are smart locks legal?
Smart locks are legal and can even help landlords to meet their legal obligation to ensure a home is fit for human habitation, as one of the circumstances that FFHH law in England and Wales requires landlords to prevent is entry by intruders. If a smart lock makes a property more secure by, for example, preventing keys from being lost, stolen, or left out, this smart tech can help with this aim.
However, to be legal, smart locks must be managed in a way that does not counteract this security aim. If a landlord instals smart locks, they should make sure that they’re secure. They could, for example:
use secure passwords or passcodes or set rules about the passwords tenants can use (eg that they must use complex passwords)
use one-off passcodes or passwords for (or change them after) use by maintenance workers, cleaners, and other third parties who are given access to the property
Smart locks must also not be used in a way that inhibits the landlord’s ability to meet their obligations related to safety. Landlords’ fire safety obligations in England and Wales include ensuring that fire evacuation routes are always accessible. This will usually (ie unless alternative access and egress are available) require smart locks to be used in a way that allows doors to be opened by alternative means if, for example, the battery, the internet or other network, or server fails.
Can landlords install security cameras or doorbell cameras?
Security cameras or other smart tech that records video or audio should not be installed inside rental properties (eg in homes) if the landlord will have access to the data (eg videos). This conduct would generally be considered to be in breach of the tenant’s right to respect for private and family life and for the home, under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act 1998.
Security cameras may be installed to monitor the outside of a property or the shared areas (inside and outside) of a building containing multiple dwellings (eg stairwells and hallways). The legality of cameras depends on whether the landlord complies with data protection laws (ie the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018).
The video and audio data (eg of visitors and passers-by) collected by security cameras will generally be classified as personal data (ie data from which these people may be identified). This means that, in order to use and store (ie ‘process’) it, the landlord must have a lawful basis (or ‘ground’) for their activities (eg a legitimate interest in protecting property or people’s, such as tenants’, safety). The legality of security cameras in relation to these concepts will depend on the unique situation. For example, the location of the camera(s), the scope of their data collection (eg how regularly they’re turned on or how far away they can detect audio), and the rationale behind their use. Data processing should also be transparent, so landlords should make anyone who is likely to be recorded by the cameras aware of this possibility. They could use signs alerting people to the surveillance, make the cameras themselves easily visible, and alert neighbours to their use. Data should also not be shared without caution and compliance, and should not be retained longer than necessary to allow it to meet its purpose. For more information, read Data protection, Processing personal data, and Data protection principles.
Doorbell cameras face similar data protection considerations to security cameras. This type of smart tech can help tenants to manage their affairs - for example accepting parcels or letting in tradespeople - remotely. This should be done with the same data protection considerations in mind as for security cameras.
Landlords must also consider their tenants’ data protection rights in relation to cameras. However, explicit consent for the data processing (ie recording) may be obtained by tenants via their tenancy agreement or otherwise. Consent is, when practical, generally the most solid base for processing personal data.
For more information, read Data protection for private landlords and the Government’s guidance on the use of domestic CCTV.
All smart tech operates using data - from the times someone sets their heating to turn on or their morning coffee to start brewing, to the questions asked via smart speakers. When this data is the tenant’s personal data, if the landlord has access to it in any way, they must follow data protection law when processing (eg accessing or storing) it. This means that they must, for example, have a lawful basis for accessing the data in the first place (eg the tenant’s consent). For more information, read Processing personal data.
Can landlords use electronic signatures when dealing with tenants?
Electronic signatures aren’t smart tech, but they are another method of using modern technology to enhance the rental process. Written electronic signatures (ie the digital version of a regular, handwritten signature) can usually be used to execute documents used to manage a tenancy, including Tenancy agreements, Eviction notices, and letters granting tenants permission to do something with regard to the property (eg make alterations). Electronic signatures are, assuming all formalities for signing a given document are followed, legally binding in these situations. Using them can make the process of signing and sending tenancy documents much more efficient and secure and helps maintain a record of dealings. Free programmes like RocketSign can be used to electronically sign documents online. For more information, read Electronic signatures.
What can I do if my landlord’s use of smart tech breaches my rights as a tenant?
If a landlord uses smart tech in a way that breaks the law, their tenants can enforce their rights in various ways. The first step, however, should always be a discussion between the landlord and tenant to attempt to find a way to resolve the situation (eg agreeing to transfer control of utility bills to the tenant).
If the law has been broken because a property in England or Wales is not fit for human habitation (eg because the landlord controls a smart thermostat and doesn’t turn on the heating at necessary times), the tenant may start a claim against the landlord in the courts to seek compensation or a court order requiring the landlord to carry out a certain action (eg giving the tenant control of the heating). In Wales, tenants may also be able to withhold rent payments when a dwelling is not fit for human habitation. For more information, read Fitness for human habitation.
If smart tech has breached data protection laws and infringed on tenants’ data protection rights, the tenant may be able to object to the processing of their personal data. This essentially entails contacting the landlord and explaining why they should stop using your data. The landlord must then investigate and respond to the objection in accordance with the law. They may have to, for example, prove the legitimate interests that form the lawful basis of their data processing. For more information, read Objecting to the use of personal data. Data protection and other privacy-related rights (eg the right to respect for private life and the home) may also be enforced via the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the courts.
You can Ask a lawyer if you need advice about or help with starting legal proceedings against your landlord.