Real estate apps “enormously hungry” for data

Redfin, Zillow, CoStar and others scrape more user data than the typical app, privacy expert says

Redfin, Zillow “Enormously Hungry” For User Data
DeleteMe's John Gilmore (DeleteMe, Getty)

Here are just a few of the things that data harvesters want to know about the users of some of the most popular real estate apps, according to privacy expert John Gilmore.

Who is moving? Where? Why? How old are they? How many times have they bought homes before? Is it a single person or a family? Where do they work? How much do they spend on their credit card each month? Who are their contacts? Do they have a pet?

“They want to know everything,” GIlmore, research director at DeleteMe, a subscription service that removes personal information from search engine results, said. 

While all apps are data-hungry, those that play in the real estate industry are “enormously hungry” for as much data as they can get from users, according to Gilmore.

Apps collect information differently than traditional web browsers, Gilmore said. 

A user on a computer hits some limits, but when that user accesses an app on the phone or tablet, all bets are off. 

Even if they install an app and abandon it after five minutes, it keeps tracking users as they scroll through websites, send and receive emails and buy things with ApplePay, Gilmore said, building a profile that it can sell to advertisers.

“The main reason mobile apps exist — whether they’re a game, whether they provide information like WebMD, whether they’re a fitness application, it doesn’t matter what it is — they are first and foremost data collection tools,” he said, adding that free apps tend to be more aggressive than those that cost money. “With a free app, you are the product and it’s always going to be designed 100 percent to gather data.”

“When I say enormously, I mean they go so far beyond what you would expect,” he said.

The browsing business

Landlord GO is a mobile game where users buy, sell and renovate buildings. Advertisers target players of this and other real-estate mobile games when they want to know more about a specific cohort, Gilmore said. Virtual real estate moguls are likely to be older, wealthier and thus have more valuable data than the typical mobile gamer – a valuable demographic.

“It’s unlikely a 10-year-old is going to be playing a landlord-flipping game,” he said.

But the more invasive data harvesting is coming from the likes of much larger real estate companies like Zillow, Redfin and CoStar, Gimore said. 

Real estate apps in particular are very aggressive about looking into their users’ contacts because they want to know who else you know, where they live and even where they work, he said. If 80 percent of your friends work in finance in New York, he said, a data analytics tool may be programmed to decide, “Let’s put an extra little star by his name. Let’s sell him a place in Boca.”

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This is especially pronounced because a person may only buy or sell one or two houses in their life, and numerous parties all “want a piece of the same transaction,” from agents to insurance companies to developers to cable and internet providers. 

After looking through a few of the biggest real estate app’s privacy policies, Gilmore said that companies were similarly egregious in their collection of user data. They all probably use similar third-party data collection tools, he said, based on what the buyers of that data want to see. 

CoStar and Zillow did not reply to a request for comment. 

In a statement, Redfin said its “primary purpose for collecting data from our customers is so that we can provide them with Redfin’s products and services. We also provide more relevant and personalized content on Redfin.com, including ads, based on our users’ interests.” The company also said it takes “privacy seriously” and directed users to its privacy policy, which includes information on what data it collects and how to opt-out of internet-based advertising, Google analytics, cookies and mobile device ID tracking. 

That mobile device ID has become more important than a social security number in tracking identity in recent years, Gilmore said. The device identifier is “essentially your fingerprint,” he said, tracking you as you move through the world, figuring out where you work, and how often you go to the drug store, or out for dinner.

“Your phone number and your device identifier can be used to learn so much more about you than your Social Security number ever did,” he said. 

Phone makers have started getting more serious about privacy in recent years, Gilmore said, but disclosures that an app is collecting information like “Content,” “Financial Information,” “Contacts” and “Location” are purposefully vague to “reassure people.” 

“Content,” for example, could mean reading your emails.

“It’s not a realistic depiction of what really goes on,” he said.  

The “nominal rules” around location data collection have been changing relatively quickly, in large part as a reaction to the realization that it could be used to track women seeking abortions after the repeal of Roe v. Wade, Gilmore said. But it will take a while for those changes to filter into the real world, with enforcement being the biggest driver. 

He pointed out that two of the largest location data brokers are now facing punitive damages from the Federal Trade Commission.

“That means everyone else in that business is going, ‘OK, we need to find a new business model,’” he said. 

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