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.