The hours of development and training, honing techniques, guidelines, quality control processes and data protocols are ongoing within any digital production team. They take a long time to define and implement in the first place. However, the value of these self-imposed measures to protect customer data and consumer privacy at all costs was brought into sharp focus earlier this month.
The hapless Devon estate agent was unlucky to find itself called out in the national press for displaying private data including “a share dividend cheque, an insurance policy document and an invoice” on the internet via a virtual tour, not least because it could have happened to countless others.
It was a ticking time bomb for consumer privacy and security. It still is. The issue stems from the breakdown in the ‘data chain’ when agents purchase or use hardware themselves to capture a property, passing the data to a third party to process, produce and host a virtual tour.
In this case, the provider is reported to be Matterport. Taking them as an example, they have captured 10bn square foot in 150 countries, equating to a vast square footage of potentially unfiltered property interiors available to view on the internet.
The virtual tours themselves are a fantastic addition to the property market and have been surging in popularity as the pandemic has continued to disrupt our daily lives. They have helped to keep the market moving when people were heavily restricted in leaving their homes.
In the haste to catch up with this trend, however, virtual tours and videos of varying quality have appeared on property listings without going through anything like the appropriate checks for any personal or private data on show.
Agents need to be aware of the checks that their provider runs. This ranges from none at all to face blurring for a premium fee. Meanwhile, the agent and their customer are left dangerously exposed unless they can conduct checks and edits themselves.
Vendors, occupiers and agents need the security that accountability brings. Having more stringent checks in place is crucial to the long-term future of virtual tours and the growing online viewings market. Our measures include the removal or blurring of a number of items such as door numbers, car number-plates, items reflected in mirrors, personal documents, any reference to the names of occupants and personal photos.
Virtual tours need to be subjected to rigorous scrutiny in order to protect vendors, beyond the advice to “hide any sensitive material” before the property is scanned and photographed. There is a duty of care that cannot be ignored and a particularly sensitive source of data being put at risk of falling into the wrong hands.
Quality and privacy checks remove sensitive material and data, as well as the risk of exposure from virtual tours that are hosted publicly online. More needs to be done to ensure that this level of protection is extended to all active participants in the property market.
James D Marshall is founder and CEO of Pupil.