The Arc of Technology

As the ‘Internet of Everything’ unlocks huge business potential, apartment companies need to be on the lookout for progress’ unintended risks.

Martin Luther King, Jr., paraphrased transcendentalist reformer Theodore Parker when he famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m reminded of this quote when thinking about technology (believe it or not). However, my paraphrase of MLK would go something like, “The arc of technology is long, but it bends toward progress.”

Inherent in both statements is the
idea that current troubles blind us to the inevitable, but slow march of progress. In the case of technology, this means that headlines focusing on data breaches, our loss of privacy and the frenetic world that technology has wrought can overshadow the good it has brought. From detecting and combating disease to solving crimes and increasing the speed, convenience, safety and effectiveness of almost everything we do, technology has clearly
enabled progress.

This isn’t to say that we should accept or overlook the risks or that technology hasn’t also created problems of its own making. The risks and problems only highlight the need for a vigilant and robust response that both facilitates innovation and addresses the unintended consequences. Unfortunately, our existing systems and regulatory regimes seem hopelessly outdated and incapable of doing either.

Which brings us to the Internet of Everything (IOE) and how it may affect the multifamily industry. Let me explain.

The opportunity

The Internet of Everything is shorthand for connecting everyday items—think your car, your television, your fridge, your lights—to the Internet wirelessly using radio frequency identification (RFID) or similar means. Once connected to the web, these devices can be monitored remotely from smart phones and iPads, making it easy for people to remotely close the garage door, turn on the washer, locate a lost or misplaced item or track orders for everything from packages to pizza deliveries.

This is the next big thing in technology, it’s happening now, and the results will be revolutionary, particularly for those like us who are in the business of providing homes for people. It will make running our communities and companies easier, safer, and more productive in ways none of us can yet imagine, but in ways that tech giants such as Samsung, Google and Apple are intent on showing us.

It is also an area where unintended consequences could loom large.

The risk

Apartment firms already collect loads of personal and private information about their residents, from telephone numbers and email addresses to social security numbers, banking information, credit histories and much more. With the IOE, apartment firms may end up adding an almost limitless amount of additional personal information to that data bank.

Just imagine: Fitness centers and equipment may end up collecting sensitive information such as a resident’s age, weight, body fat, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure. Smart appliances could track the amount of beer and wine in residents’ fridges, who gets up for a midnight snack, and who visited the apartment and how long they stayed. Similarly, mailroom systems could store data on who’s an online shopaholic or magazine and newspaper subscription information.

Now imagine that information was inadvertently shared or stolen and your company “machines” were responsible for the breach? Or imagine a resident losing the cell phone that now controls those machines in your community. All of this and more could happen as we connect our “everythings” to the Internet and then sync them across all our devices.

As recent data breaches have proven, there is a corporate cost to not adequately protecting our customers’ (residents’) private information. The IOE creates privacy and data protection risks that we could not have contemplated even a few years ago and have few safeguards or defenses against today.

I am intrigued by the IOE, and am excited about the possibilities, but also mindful of the risks. As it moves from the realm of fantasy to daily reality, it is incumbent on us to keep our eyes on those unanticipated consequences. Such discussion, debate and response is our responsibility and vital to ensuring that the arc of technology truly continues to bend toward progress.

Rick Haughey is vice president of industry technology initiatives at the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC). This article is excerpted from Multifamily FourSight, an NMHC-produced column in which four industry leaders discuss emerging issues and their effects on the multifamily industry. Rick can be reached at rhaughey@nmhc.org