Airbnb in New York City: Whose Privacy Rights Are Threatened by a Government Data Grab?

April 27, 2019

New York City regulators have vigorously resisted the rise of Airbnb as an alternative to traditional hotels, characterizing “home sharing” as a trend that is sucking up permanent housing in a city already facing an affordability crisis. However, laws banning short-term rentals have done little to discourage this practice, as Airbnb’s policy of keeping user information private makes it possible for illegal operators to evade law enforcement. Frustrated by this power imbalance, the New York City Council passed Local Law 146, which requires Airbnb to provide city officials with access to the names and information of its home sharing hosts on a monthly basis to assist with law enforcement efforts. Airbnb claims that the ordinance is a flagrant violation of its own privacy rights and the rights of its customers.

Local Law 146 is the culmination of the regulatory struggle over Airbnb in New York City, but it is also a flash point for government data-collection efforts generally. Because of the massive potential of using private companies’ data to aid in law enforcement efforts, the implementation of data-collection statutes could be an attractive policing tool. Using Local Law 146 as a lens, this Note examines the privacy issues implicated by datacollection laws and discusses which parties can assert these privacy rights, particularly given recent changes in third-party doctrine jurisprudence. Ultimately, this Note concludes that, while the outcome of Airbnb’s challenge to Local Law 146 will be an important indicator, the suit will not resolve the question of whether individual Airbnb hosts could successfully challenge this law without the support of the company. Individual challenges to sweeping data-collection statutes could be the next frontier in breaking down the thirdparty doctrine’s barrier to Fourth Amendment protections.

May 2019

No. 6