MLS, Privacy, Professional Ethics and Web 2.0

In regard to Ed Danger’s map and how it compares to MLXchange’s mapping function, dignanmaplethorpe asked if I could post my “username and password for MLXchange so we can see that too?”

I don’t know if the question is innocent, because there are a lot of reasons for asking it. I do think its sincere.  

 I can’t share my username and id because I’ve signed a contract with the Board agreeing not to share them. 

Further, article 10.3 of the Board’s Rules of Cooperation states that “…no Member or employee of a corporate Member shall make avaliable to any other individual…access codes to the MLS computer system…” 

So the answer is no, I can’t post my username and ID. 

Some will think this rule exists because the Board wants to control access to MLS.  There’s probably truth to that. The MLS database is extremely valuable to its owners, and it would be extremely valuable to many other people, and for many different reasons.  Some of the goals of non-Realtors are fair, ethical, or even innocuous.  Someone may want to know how many of the over-lists are condos in Kits, or how many of the price reductions are ranchers in Port Moody, or if the over-list sales were under-listed originally.  However some may be interested to know which properties are vacant and susceptible to robbing or fraudulent renting.  Some may want to know who to send moving company or re-financing bulk mail to. 

 More important, perhaps, is the source of the information that makes the MLS database valuable. It begins as personal information that belongs to individuals.  With the signing of a Multiple Listing Agreement or a Contract of Purchase and Sale the Board acquires copyright to certain articles of the individual’s personal information. After that time we can do with it what we like, provided it corresponds with the reasons for collection set out in the contracts.  We can’t re-sell it to mass marketers, for instance, but we can share it with BC Assessment.   The bottom line is that even though the personal information is no longer strictly personal, we can’t afford to let it out on a wholesale basis if that kills the goose that lays the golden egg.   Would you be happy signing a listing agreement and giving me your persoanl info if you knew it was being sent to a local moving company?  A multi-national marketing company with boiler-room operations in India? Zillow? Zaio Corp.?

 But wait!  Both Zillow and Zaio are creating online databases of your information, and turning a buck by doing it.  Zaio wants to take a picture of your house and sell it to an appraiser.  Zillow wants to create an even larger database.  If you remember the Web 2.0 – Web 3.0 link I posted yesterday you’ll probably remember that at the end Professor Wesch says we’ll need to re-think a bunch of concepts, from love and family to authorship and copyright…and privacy.  
Zillow is barely out with Zillow 5.0, and already Greg Swann at Bloodhound have figured out how to populate its database through the use of bots. He can own a territory by “peeing on trees”, and do it with a bot. Oh yeah, and with your information.

Is that good or bad? Where does ownership of your information begin and end? I don;t know, and neither does the current MLS set-up. Greg recognizes that the Arizona Real Estate Association to which he belongs prevents him from posting a lot of the information he’s privy to on Zillow, just as the REBGV prevents me (with my consent) from doing the same, but Greg argues that if a non-Realtor can post a statement of fact (for example, a sale price), so can a Realtor. It hasn’t been tested, but the real point is, as Professer Wesch said, we’ll have to re-think privacy.

Straw poll: would you like the public information that is your name, address, municipal tax, assessed property value, what you paid for your house and when, readily accessible to everyone on the internet?



Filed under MLS, Privacy

5 responses to “MLS, Privacy, Professional Ethics and Web 2.0

  1. millionpitfall

    Come on Rob,

    Municipal taxes and assessed property values are available to the general public. January to mid March every year for free on the BC Assessment website or you can pay a fee to have this information available to you year round. If the property sold in the assessed year, that information will show up too.

  2. I hate to tell you this, but privacy is over.

    Seriously, as a guy who makes his living performing computer security audits (among other things) for Fortune 500 companies, and building secure server installations and datacenters, security is untenable, and anything can be gleaned by someone determined enough.

    Simply put, to keep secrets which you share with a limited number of people, you have to be smarter than all of the bad guys, all of the time. They only need one of them to be smarter than you, once.

    How does this relate to the MLS, Zillow, etc? All of the data on those services are ticking time bombs. Eventually, whether due to a disgruntled employee, or a determined hacker, the information is going to leak, and you can’t put the rabbit back in the hat.

    Government data storage is arguably no better than private companies either, although I think that Canadian governmental agencies are doing a lot better than down in the states.

  3. Occupant

    The moving companies already send out junk mail to all of the houses listed on MLS or Realtor’s websites – they don’t need to know your name to do that.

  4. millionpitfall


    Moving companies even address mail directly to you, even if you have an unlisted telephone number and have occupied on your intercom.

    Makes you wonder who is selling the moving companies this information? MLS? Realtors? Smells like a fish to me.

  5. robchipman


    Don’t take this wrong, but I think you’re missing my point. Tech development means we have to re-think a lot of stuff, and privacy is one of them.

    The first thing that happened when info went digital is that commerce got unfettered access to it. Innovation occurred and consumers got contacted, and before long they were contacted en masse, through software. We’re probably talking over ten years ago.

    The REBGV was on the cutting edge of that issue because our members used the technology and the information, we collected the info for the tax authority, and we dealt with the original owners of the info.

    The consumer didn’t like all of the results of the tech/information collision. Privacy legislation emerged as a partial cure.

    You’re right that municipal taxes info is public, but you’re wrong to dismiss my point. You can get the info online from January to March, in restricted form, and you can get it year round if you pay (and enter into a contract that satisfies privacy legislation concerns), but I, with my instant access to municipal records, can’t find the owner’s name. BC Assessment blocks that information out.

    In other words, the government can share whatever info it wants without worrying about getting in trouble with another arm of the government, but the REBGV can’t. Why? After all, its public, and can be accessed elsewhere. The answer is that we (all of us) are in the process of re-thinking privacy, but we haven’t reached a conclusion yet. There are lots of illogical situations.

    We’re advised, for example, that we can’t publish sold prices until BC Assessment has them published, and that can be months after a sale. I only have one explanation for that: privacy legislators don’t care about consistency, and they have a hammer over us (they can withdraw our access to BC Assessment data), so we comply.

    I think Rantenki is right. You can’t keep stuff secret these days. All you can do is make law/regulation/contract abiding people play by the rules. One bad guy and your secret is out. And it is a ticking time bomb.

    The moving company issue is a fairly unimportant problem, but it was one of the first with bulk mail and computerized data. It didn’t take long for a conclusion to be drawn when newly listed houses got addressed mail to the owner selling some sort of service. Whether it was a Realtor giving an access code or someone else getting into the system some other way, it was an early example of what Rantenki is pointing to: 1 bad actor can compromise the system. Result? There is strong language and harsh penalties for me if I let permit access to non-Members. I can’t defend myself by saying the info is available elsewhere.

    Still, the privacy issue needs to be re-thought. Bsed on your last comment I’ll assume you don’t like that moving companies can find out who you are and contact you directly even if you attempt to stay off the grid. Yet, you seem to want unfettered access to MLS data. There’s a conflict there. I don’t know what the solution is, but the conflict is clear.

    MLS differs from Zillow or Zaio, in that we have long term interests in getting along with all levels of government and the consumer. We’re also inextricably local – even if, through CREA, we have a national approach to things, practical applications vary from board to board. Local govenrment (and nowadays I think local means municipal, provincial and federal) have a big hammer they can hit us with, so we behave or suffer the consequences.

    Private companies don’t necessarily share those characteristics. A US company that can safely ignore BC authorities can collect and manage an awful lot of data. Wikipedia + real estate = Zillow 5.0 I have contractual agreements that prevent me from posting on Zillow that your house sold for $400,000 this morning. Your neighbour doesn’t. Your home inspector, mortgage broker, bank employee, appraiser, conveyancer and postie probably don’t. And we know, from the music industry and file sharing, the government can’t control info on the internet – they can only punish individuals.

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