Developer Plans to Use Thermal-Imaging Cameras in Co-Living Complex

Developers aspiring to convert the big old art deco-inspired Hendrons building at Broadstone to co-living have plans for how they would manage Covid-19 in the complex.

One measure? Thermal-imaging cameras that would monitor residents’ temperatures, says a planning document.

“Anyone displaying a raised temperature will be advised to isolate for a period,” says the management plan, submitted as part of the planning application for the site.

Residents would also use a smartphone app to access many of the buildings’ services – as would their fellow co-livers, too, down the road at the shopping centre in Phibsboro, where another complex has been mooted, this one by MM Capital. Here too, residents of the building would have their movements inside watched on CCTV cameras.

Debates around co-living have so far focused on the small rooms, high rents, and lack of tenancy rights for those who will live there, and the model’s wider impact on land and rental markets.

But the planning documents for the wave of applications that made it in before Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien’s ban also show how much property managers plan to rely on tech to manage many of the buildings, gathering data from people as they go about their lives.

“Pushing people into these things as part of their accommodation – that’s a big step to take and that’s something we need to be careful about,” says Antoin Ó Lachtnain, a director of Digital Rights Ireland.

Hot or Not

According to the management plan for the Hendrons building, also being called the Western Way development, the flow of people through the 281-bed complex would be controlled by an automated system known as “access control”.

Residents and visitors wishing to use the building’s facilities “will be required to ‘tap’ in and out” using their mobile phones or smart watches, using the building’s own smartphone application, says the plan, submitted by John Spain Associates on behalf of Western Way Development Ltd.

Linked to this access control would be thermal-imaging cameras and traditional CCTV cameras.

This infrastructure would “limit the number of entrants due to current social distancing rules at the time of entry and the additional cleaning requirements due to usage”, say the documents.

The thermal-imaging cameras would help to manage Covid-19 in the building’s communal spaces, they say.

Eoin O’Dell, associate professor of law in Trinity College Dublin, and member of the Government Data Forum, says that putting together a high temperature and Covid-19 means that this data could be considered health data.

Health data has more protection under GDPR than some other kinds, says O’Dell. “Normal processing requires consent. But special category data processing requires explicit consent.”

This should be made clear in any data-protection impact assessment (DPIA), he says. That’s an assessment that those who process data have to do, to identify data-protection risks and how they’ll handle them.

John Spain Associates, the planning consultancy, didn’t respond to a query about whether a data-protection impact assessment would be carried out for the building.

Olga Cronin, policy officer for surveillance and human rights with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said: “You have to ask yourself, are we creating a surveillance infrastructure? Once we build it it’s very difficult to get rid of it.”

She points to research by the American Civil Liberties Union on the shortcomings of thermal cameras for detecting Covid, and how people may have high temperatures for a myriad of reasons.

Logged In

The smartphone app for the redeveloped Hendrons building would be central to living at the complex. According to planning documents, it would enhance the “HendronsLife experience” and allow the building to be managed more efficiently.

Residents would be able to use the app to pay rent, file maintenance requests, and connect to other residents, documents say.

“[T]he Hendrons hub will also allow functionality so residents can see who is booked in to specific room types and events,” says the application.

John Spain Associates and Western Way Developments haven’t responded to queries as to what rooms and events this refers to, and whether residents attending such events have the option of opting out of being visible.

Architectural design by John Fleming Architects, from the planning application.

Planning documents for other co-living developments in the city – all yet to be built – lay out similar proposals for managing buildings with smartphone applications.

According to MM Capital’s planning application for the Phibsboro shopping centre, SQRE Living will be managing the co-living development there.

Its SQRE Living Platform app can be used to book meeting and dining rooms to avoid overcrowding, ensure access to the building, pay rent, book maintenance and socialise.

“SQRE Living will employ advanced analytics to constantly improve the resident experience based on residents’ actual preferences as registered through the SQRE Living Platform,” says the application.

SQRE Living hasn’t responded to queries sent on 25 January, around different uses of this information, residents’ consent, and whether it had done a DPIA yet.

O’Dell, the Trinity law professor, says such smartphone applications need to come with adequate privacy policies. “Regulators are forever pointing out that apps have inadequate privacy policies.”

Just telling people that data is being collected for analytical purposes is not good enough, he says. “It has to explain what is happening to the data.”

Any privacy policy has to be easy to understand too, he says. “They can’t write it in legal speak, they have to write it in relatively plain English.”

If co-living spaces are managed by US multinationals, that could add another challenge, says O’Dell. “There are data transfer issues.”

They have to set out how that data is being transferred, he says.

Neither Cork Street Shared Living, BM Durkan, Westridge Real Estate nor Ronan Group responded to queries about data-processing practices at their proposed co-living developments.

A spokesperson for Bartra Capital, which has permission for four co-living developments – in Rathmines, Ballsbridge, Castleknock, and Dún Laoghaire – said: “We will be fully GDPR compliant in how we process and handle data.”

Keeping Watch

Putting up CCTV cameras inside and outside co-living developments, including in communal areas, provokes interesting questions, says Ó Lachtnain of Digital Rights Ireland.

“We’re into the trade-off of the constitutional right to the privacy of the home,” says Ó Lachtnain. “Is the home going to be a private place anymore or is the privacy being eroded?”

The Data Protection Commissioner recently said that CCTV cameras can be used in homes once it’s done in compliance with GDPR, said O’Dell, the Trinity law professor.

That means having a lawful basis for the cameras, signs letting people know, and systems to keep personal data safe – and complying with any requests for personal data to be deleted.

“It’s not that CCTV is necessarily bad. It’s that unregulated CCTV is potentially bad,” O’Dell says.

In Ireland, there is an additional right of inviolability of the dwelling that is “a locus of privacy in your household”, he says.

The use of CCTV in the home might raise some questions around the constitutional protection of inviolability of the home, but the courts haven’t really developed this right to any great extent, he says.

“I suspect that if CCTV is operating consistently within GDPR principles it wouldn’t infringe that constitutional right but it’s still an open question,” he says.

Says O’Dell: “They can only monitor for the purposes for which they said they are going to monitor.”

Ó Lachtnain, of Digital Rights Ireland, asks whether the surveillance systems could be used to monitor whether people are behaving well or badly, and whether that could affect how they’re treated in the building.

Can owners of co-living complexes use these systems not just for enforcement but also for positive reinforcement? he asks. “You know, so if a person behaves pro-socially that we’re going to give them extra points, or discounts or better references or things like that.”

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Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

Reader responses

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Ian Lamont
at 5 February at 13:30

Would love to pay 1,700 credits per month to live in your Black Mirror tech jail, sign me up.

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