Home health charity Whare Hauora has sent an open letter urging housing minister Dr Megan Woods to stop Kāinga Ora's new project to put sensors in state homes.
Kāinga Ora (which includes the old Housing NZ) currently has a request for proposals for vendors to provide home sensors, which they intend to roll out to public housing, taking home health measurements inside family's homes.
"The idea of using sensors to measure things like temperature and humidity in homes can be a great thing, especially because we know New Zealand has a huge problem with cold, damp homes," says Whare Hauora president Amber Craig.
"However, we're concerned at Kāinga Ora measuring unnecessary, invasive things inside people's homes, without transparency to families about what information families will actually be handing over."
Kāinga Ora has stated they will own each family's data, and that individuals will have to apply through the Privacy Act to access information taken from their homes. They have also indicated their intention to share their tenant's data to "gain further insights", Craig says.
"I think a lot of people, including Kāinga Ora's tenants, won't realise the proposed home sensors will be able to tell their landlord things like when they're home, when a window or curtain is open and how many people are in a room."
"We're hugely concerned this information will be used to evict families for things like overcrowding, or shared with the Ministry of Social Development and used to cut welfare payments if they suspect, for instance, a solo mother on the sole parent benefit has someone sleeping over," says Craig.
She wants Woods to scrap the project as it stands, and for Kāinga Ora to reissue its RFP with better privacy protections and more transparency.
Tenants will get a choice: Kāinga Ora
Council for Civil Liberties chairman Thomas Beagle told the Herald, "I think it's a good point and we should be very careful about putting connected sensors into our house. This applies particularly when it's a sensor owned by the government."
He added, "While I suspect that this project is being done in good faith to help people, good intentions aren't enough to protect people when someone in government decides it's time to institute a crackdown using the tools and data provided.
People might counter by saying that we happily add smart home assistants from Amazon and Google, Beagle said, "but not all of us are happy with it and some of us choose not to. Will this choice be available to tenants of Kāinga Ora as this technology gets adopted?"
The Herald put Beagle's question to Kāinga Ora.
National portfolio manager Monique Fouwler replied that it the pilot, involving 160 homes (with a possible 2000 to be added) would be opt-in.
"Tenants will be provided a detailed consent form and information which outlines how the data will be used and protected. If tenants do not consent, this will have no impact on any ongoing or future relationship tenants have with Kāinga Ora," she said.
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards told the Herald he was still collecting information about the controversy. But as things stand, "It is far from clear that the kind of sensors described could be used in the way feared by Whare Hauora," he said.
"The Privacy Act would require that before using any information derived from a sensor for some adverse purpose that Kāinga Ora ensured the information it was seeking to rely on was complete, relevant, up to date and not misleading."
Whare Hauora's letter raises the potential threat of sensor data being made available to landlords, who could abuse it.
Edwards did not see that as likely. "I would be very surprised if there was any intention to provide third parties with any personally identifiable information arising from the day-to-day monitoring of a tenancy," he said.
For Kāinga Ora, Fouwler responded, "In our original consent form to be part of the first stage of the pilot, we let tenants know we would potentially share information with external researchers where it would help us better understand the sensor data and what it means to have a healthy home. We will give careful consideration to the benefit of sharing data in the future for helping us gain further insights and evaluation. There will be strict agreements in place to ensure privacy is respected and data kept secure," she said.
A spokeswoman for Woods indicated the minister was unlikely to respond to Whare Hauora open letter. She would likely leave it to Kāinga Ora, given it was an "operational issue".
The Council for Civil Liberties' Beagle said Whare Hauora raised broader concerns.
"Amazon and Google might spy on you but they don't have the powers of the government. They can't take away our children, our benefit, or our homes based on the data that they collect," he said.
"There is already a significant power imbalance between people in state housing and the government, and this is just going to make it worse.
"People have a right to feel secure in their homes and I believe that includes the right to not be spied on and surveilled."