Pando

SubletSpy uses surveillance tech to declare war on Airbnb renters

By Dan Raile , written on May 25, 2016

From The Sharing Economy Desk

Last fall, fresh off of a decisive victory over San Francisco public servants, Airbnb’s Head of Global Policy Chris Lehane told an audience of supporters in Paris that “Home sharing is a big idea. So big that no army could stop us. You are on the side of history.”

Now a plucky startup has entered into the breach to halt Airbnb’s advance, with an assist from the Israeli armed forces. A new hope will emerge.

Launched last month, SubletSpy is the product of NYC-Tel Aviv-based machine vision company Friend or Fraud. The service provides an interface for landlords to determine whether their properties are being used for short-term rentals, using machine vision tech built mainly by a recent member of the Israeli Air Force.  

Friend or Fraud CEO Ari Teman claims that SubletSpy can deliver a report in a matter of minutes after signup. For a dollar per month per unit, the service provides alerts of new listings, “de-anonymizes” hosts and links to their social media. It provides a report on the frequency of short-term rentals. Soon, Teman says, the company will be able to monitor on-site cameras algorithmically to notify landlords the moment when short-term renters arrive, suitcases in hand. Teman says SubletSpy has identified 200 “illegal sublets” in its first month of operations in New York City alone. The city’s Office of Special Enforcement nabbed just 300 in all 2015.

In New York City, any rentals of entire apartments lasting under 30 days are illegal. In jurisdictions where Airbnb has more legal footing, landlords may still find the SubletSpy service useful. Many short-term rentals violate lease agreements and are grounds for eviction. Evictions play a big part in SubletSpy’s value proposition. This is actionable intel for landlords.

“By evicting people who are taking advantage of rent control, running a hotel and don’t even live there, a landlord can charge more rent, get a better mortgage, take the difference in cash, invest in new building. That’s how developers in make money. That’s the whole game,” Teman said.

SubletSpy is one of several machine vision products that Friend or Fraud plans to launch around its core machine vision IP. Planned applications include fraud detection and sleep-monitoring, keyless entry and rider identification by self-driving Ubers.

Perhaps ironically, this is just the sort of surveillance creep Airbnb often accuses local governments of employing to ferret out illegal activity on the platform, but of which those municipalities are largely incapable of developing and deploying.

“We are far more effective than the police, basically. Government has been so slow to use tech. We went to the Office of Special Enforcement under [New York City Mayor Bill] De Blasio and they declined our offer. So I decided, if the city is not going to use it, then we’ll sell directly to the people,” Teman said.

Ari Teman’s fight is personal. Two years ago he unwittingly rented his New York City flat out on Airbnb for what turned out to be a raucous sex party. He was not only stunned, he was also evicted and, he claims, placed on a citywide tenant “black list.” Now he’s out for revenge.

“It’s not just one company, there are others and we scrape other platforms as well. But I personally dislike Airbnb, and they don’t seem to be all that popular with a lot of folks,” Teman said. “From the outset, Airbnb has been an organized crime operation.”

“Airbnb conned millions of people into doing something illegal, misrepresenting it as legal and lying about who was using the platform. Eventually at least one of their investors is going to pull out, and there will be a domino effect.”

Teman hopes SubletSpy will be on the pushing side of this Cold War metaphor.

SubletSpy has been releasing Airbnb data on a city-by-city basis. Teman claims his company’s methods for gathering this data is able to avoid Airbnb’s attempts to thwart such eforts. If true, this could provide city governments and news agencies with a much needed source of information. Currently, most data on the scope and character of Airbnb usage come from the company itself, and are heavily massaged.

When he’s not running Friend or Fraud, Teman is a stand-up comedian. But even this pursuit has a martial flavor. He’s a purveyor of clean, zionist comedy with a greater purpose. Soon after his 2014 orgy-based eviction, Teman toured Israeli shelters and military bases during that year’s Gaza war performing his “You might be an Israeli if…” routine. In a documentary about those performances, Teman explains his reasons.

“If your lawyer is going to fight Hamas, maybe you shouldn’t just be sitting around in New York. So I called Danny and I said “hey let’s do this comedy tour.” Which is not the same as fighting terrorists, in hindset. But it’s nice. We wouldn’t be much good at fighting terrorists.”

Again with the war and the fighting.

“I have a lot of friends in Canada. Online, on Facebook, they’re seeing these horrible stories, these very biased stories from liberal media like CNN that’s just rabidly anti-Israel. And they think it’s like a bunch of brown people in the sand throwing rockets at each other, and I wanted to show them that, first, a lot of us are very pale. But also that Israel has this very rich culture. It’s a technology hub, there are 4,800 startups just in Tel Aviv.”

One of those startups is intent on taking the fight against Chris Lehane’s campaign of political capture by any means.

“It’s stupid for Airbnb to think they are going to fight the tight circles of trust in real estate, who have been at it for hundreds of years. Now a bunch of goyim from California are going to run illegal hotels out their properties?”