PHOTO: The website whatdoesmylandlordown.org aimed to use publicly-available data to show how many properties landlords owned. FILE
Closure of “What Does My Landlord Own?” Website for Privacy Act Violation
In a recent development, the website known as “What Does My Landlord Own?” has been taken offline for breaching the Privacy Act. This website, which emerged in February, utilized publicly accessible data to establish links between landlords and their property ownership records. This allowed renters to input their landlord’s name and discover the number of properties owned and their respective locations.
However, concerns were raised with the Privacy Commissioner regarding the website’s practice of associating individuals with properties they did not possess. Consequently, in June, the individual responsible for the site, operating under the pseudonym “Sunset_Flowers,” was contacted by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC), advising that the site likely violated the Privacy Act.
This week, the OPC released its official findings, concluding that the website inaccurately identified individuals as property owners when they were not. The accuracy issue was attributed to the website’s algorithm failing to differentiate between individuals with the same name.
Subsequently, the Privacy Commissioner contacted Land Information New Zealand (Linz), a data provider to the website, and terminated its license agreement with the platform.
A spokesperson representing the website’s creators, who opted not to reveal their identities due to concerns related to the nature of their work, emphasized that their website aimed to provide open information to the public, particularly to empower renters and activists. They argued that transparency in land ownership is crucial for holding property owners accountable for their impact on individuals, communities, and the land, particularly in the context of historical and ongoing colonial power dynamics.
The spokesperson acknowledged that New Zealand’s property records rely on full names and pointed out that the Linz database, from which their website drew data, faced the same limitation in distinguishing property owners with identical names. They noted that other free services with similar limitations had not been shut down.
Although the website has since been deactivated, it continues to display a critical assessment of New Zealand’s rental economy and raises concerns about the deputy privacy commissioner, who, in June, informed the website’s owners of their Privacy Act breach.
The website owners have made the code used to operate their platform open-source and available for public use, asserting that this action is not in violation of legislation.
However, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner indicated that it would take similar actions against any website breaching the Privacy Act in a similar manner. They emphasized the educational value of publishing this case to inform the public and agencies about their obligations under the law, particularly in the context of merging datasets.
The Privacy Commissioner clarified that if the data returned by the website had been accurate, it would not have violated the Privacy Act. The Commissioner’s findings noted that the information obtained from Linz was accurate, but inaccuracies emerged when it was manipulated to create a new dataset for identifying landlords with multiple properties. The Commissioner argued that the website did not implement sufficient checks and balances to ensure the accuracy of this new dataset.
In conclusion, this case serves as a cautionary example in a data-driven world, highlighting the importance of verifying third-party data’s accuracy when repurposing it.