How a sense of security can keep Airbnb at bay

In a number of surveys over the years, one of the top reasons people have given for choosing to live in apartments is security.

If being safe in your own home and having a good chance of all your stuff still being there when you come back from holiday is a priority, apartment living is a wise choice.

It’s not just the fact that most apartments are several metres off the ground. In modern buildings, you’ll at least need an electronic key fob to get through the lobby door and even select your floor in the lift.

Many blocks have a video link that shows you who’s rung your apartment number and some even have a system that displays a picture on a screen of who just used their electronic pass, to compare it with a stored image of the rightful owner of the fob.

In the poshest buildings, even fingerprints are old hat and it’s facial and even iris recognition that decide whether or not you get access to your home. They also have concierges and security guards, not to mention the all-seeing eyes of video cameras.

It’s worth noting that hi-tech, high security high rises are very popular with celebrities and people in the drug and sex trades, for obvious reasons.

So what has led to such collective paranoia that we require security systems that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi movie?

There’s the simple logic that you can’t know everyone who lives in your building so you won’t know who should be there and who shouldn’t.

The maze of lift lobbies and fire stairs are prefect for sneak thieves who do manage to get inside, so the easiest answer is to stop trespassers at the front door.

In the early days of the building where I now live, there were stories of a “spiderman” thief who was clambering up the outside of the block, over balconies and stealing from flats.

The truth was more prosaic. It turned out to be the security guard mates of our incompetent former building manager who was handing out master keys like lollies.

One function of a hi-tech security system these days is to control the number of people living in any one flat.  Cloned electronic keys allow renters to be squeezed into overcrowded city apartments.

But one increasingly common system compares the face of the person wielding the key against a picture that pops up on a screen. If they don’t match, the cloned fobs can be deregistered on the spot.

This leads to much angst among all the excluded residents and it can have unintended consequences.  I recently heard about a woman who unwittingly took her husband’s pass key when she stepped out of her city apartment.

When she returned, and used the pass, her face popped up on the security screen next to a picture of her partner.  The security guard cancelled the pass, as instructed, and she was stuck in the lobby, unable to activate the lift button to her floor.

I know I tend to bang on about short-term holiday lets but a lot of apartment block security measures have been potentially nullified by the spread of Airbnb and other online agencies.

It’s already happening. If your neighbours can go online and allow dozens of people they have never met into your buildings, your sense of security might take a hike too.

On the other hand, seriously ramped-up security that only allows access to known residents might be the silver bullet buildings that really don’t want holiday lets are looking for.

If you can match access to your apartment to facial recognition, fingerprints or even iris recognition (which is already on the latest generation of smartphones) cloned fobs aren’t going to let hordes of holidaymakers into your  flats … unless the owners is actually there.

Airbnb, who sell themselves on this false notion that they are all about personal sharing rather than commercial letting, should be dancing in the street at this development.

Instead, the only people dancing in the street are illegal renters, desperate to use the facilities of their holiday flat, but unable to get past security.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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