These Digital Locks Help Keep Tabs on Tenants

Designed by Apple veterans, Latch is pitching disposable codes to landlords.

It’s Aug. 10, and Luke Schoenfelder and Thomas Meyerhoffer are in a three-unit apartment building on Manhattan’s East 33rd Street awaiting a flood of deliveries. First an order from UberRUSH comes in, then one from Amazon Prime Now. Someone suggests calling out for wings. No one worries about retrieving the packages from the lobby: The point is to make sure all the delivery guys can operate the front door’s digital lock.

This is the first public demonstration by Latch, the smart-lock company the men started three years ago. Before they place each order, they use the Latch app to generate a seven-digit code granting temporary access to the front door. They paste the codes into the delivery instructions. When the deliverymen show up, a touchscreen on the lock grants them access for 10 seconds while an embedded camera takes their photos. (Software also logs the visit for building owners.) In the end, all the deliverymen figure it out with ease.

Latch

Latch

Photographer: Tim Schutsky for Bloomberg Businessweek

Many people have operated some kind of electronic lock in a hotel room or college dorm, and a handful of startups pitch individual homeowners on locks that can be opened with codes or phones. Latch, whose hardware can open a door with a numeric code, a phone’s Bluetooth connection, or a traditional metal key, is targeting city landlords whose concerns about building access are more complex than they used to be. The company’s pitch is based on a couple of Silicon Valley’s favorite things: design and data.

The design falls to Meyerhoffer, a star at Apple in the 1990s who went on to make experimental surfboards and commemorative glasses for Coca-Cola. He tapped into Apple’s minimalist aesthetic for the lock’s design. The plain zinc surface sports a circular black plastic touchscreen across the top—designed to resemble an “unblinking eye,” according to Meyerhoffer. The word “Latch” appears in small, capital letters just above the keyhole. “It’s a simple product, because it’s replacing a simple product,” he says.

Latch executives aren’t under the illusion landlords will want the locks because they’re pretty. “Working with this industry, it hasn’t typically been a super-early technology adopter,” says Schoenfelder. So the sales pitch emphasizes big buildings’ traffic problems. Along with the growing raft of delivery services that apartment dwellers now rely on, guests, dog walkers, nannies, maids, and others need varying levels of access. Latch promises to help landlords simplify those issues and monitor the facilities. Among Schoenfelder’s examples: “Do people use the gym? Do people use study rooms? What does the package room look like?”

Of course, where a landlord sees a neat opportunity for data collection, a resident might see a threat of constant surveillance. Not everyone wants to live in a Panopticon. Schoenfelder says residents have some control—they can have building management turn off the camera in the Latch lock on their units—but using the cameras and codes to enforce building rules, such as limits on guests or bans on Airbnb rentals, is a selling point. “Being able to monitor and manage all the guests that are at a building, we think, could potentially give landlords and regulators a lot more comfort,” he says, before acknowledging the minefield he’s stepping into: “It’s something we tread lightly on.”

Meyerhoffer and Schoenfelder

Meyerhoffer and Schoenfelder

Photographer: Tim Schutsky for Bloomberg Businessweek

Schoenfelder, another Apple veteran, began work on Latch after closing his last startup, which produced tech for South American utility companies. While he wouldn’t disclose pricing, he says the hardware costs less than a high-end mechanical lock, and the company charges a monthly per-unit subscription fee. Schoenfelder says about 20 other buildings in the New York area are using Latch’s locks, although those installations aren’t necessarily building-wide. Many of the test beds are owned by private investors in the company.

One landlord that opted not to use Latch is AvalonBay Communities, which operates luxury rental buildings in America’s most expensive markets. “I think it’s beautiful technology. I love the innovation,” says Karen Hollinger, AvalonBay’s vice president for corporate initiatives. But when the company began installing smart locks in about two dozen new developments, it opted for a product built jointly by Schlage, a major lock company, and CBORD, which makes keyless systems for college campuses. “Security is serious business. There’s not a lot of room for piloting that kind of stuff,” Hollinger says.

At a cybersecurity conference this month, researchers studied 16 smart locks that use Bluetooth and were able to hack into 12 with relatively inexpensive techniques. Latch wasn’t one of the products in the study, and Schoenfelder says it uses encrypted signals that would have prevented such vulnerabilities. Still, real estate companies are wary of unproven startups peddling technology they may not quite understand.

AvalonBay is using data gleaned from its smart locks in various ways. Hollinger says the company doesn’t actively monitor who’s in a building, but after thefts, it taps into records about who’s entered which areas. When developing properties, AvalonBay has also begun to look at data in similar buildings to see, for instance, how many people are using such new amenities as pet-grooming stations.

Latch’s building on 33rd Street is too small to test this kind of use. But the company is learning a lot about the comings and goings of New York’s on-demand couriers. Toward the end of the co-founders’ Aug. 10 delivery binge, Steve Blumling, a courier for Amazon Prime Now, rides up on his bike and keys in a code. He’s inside the building a few seconds later, rearranging previous deliveries to make room for his. “People don’t like it when you leave their stuff on the ground,” he says.

Blumling says he’s already started to see a range of newfangled lock systems in apartment buildings around town. Whatever the lock looks like, though, he usually doesn’t have to wait long before someone coming in or out will hold the door open for him—a security problem that eludes technological solutions. “That’s what scares people,” he says. “Your neighbors will let anyone in.”

The bottom line: Latch’s apartment-focused digital locks are designed to simplify building access—and enhance landlords’ surveillance abilities.

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