As interactive imagery spreads in real estate, homeowners and their agents increasingly have to consider ways to keep their personal information private.

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In the summer of 2020, a new home went up for sale in Los Angeles’ beachside Venice neighborhood. The home — still on the market and currently asking $12.5 million — sprawls across four floors and more than 7,000 square feet. Much of that space is accessible to would-be buyers via a Matterport 3D tour.

But tucked into a stairwell between the basement and the garage there’s a curious gallery wall. One of the items on the wall is a poster for the hit HBO vampire show True Blood, which appears to have been signed a la a yearbook by many of the show’s crew members. Further down the wall, there’s a similarly signed poster for a play that was staged in London’s West End in the early 2000s. Elsewhere, there are two framed American Film Institute awards for married acting duo Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer — who costarred in True Blood.

As it turns out, the home belongs to the couple and was previously featured in, among other places, Architectural Digest.

But the various memorabilia on the wall offers a surprisingly personal, and very rare, look into the lives of two famous homeowners. Thanks to the 3D home tour, it’s possible to read handwritten notes about how Moyer is a “very kind person” and how True Blood was a “real pleasure” to work on.

The wall is a fun Easter egg for fans of Paquin, Moyer, True Blood and Hollywood generally.

But it also highlights the challenges of marketing properties while also protecting the privacy of those properties’ owners. While it’s fun to get a glimpse into the lives of celebrities, it may be less fun for Paquin, Moyer and the crew of True Blood to know that their personal comments and memorabilia are visible to literally anyone in the world who clicks a link. It’s a level of exposure that wouldn’t have been possible in the past.

Inman reached out to the listing agent for the Venice property, as well as Paquin and Moyer’s acting agents, and didn’t receive a response.

But a number of real estate professionals and imaging experts did speak to Inman for this story. And they uniformly said home tours like the one of the Venice house are becoming more common, and have the potential to expose personal details of more and more people.

The situation raises questions about both privacy and security, and as real estate imaging technology becomes both ever-more advanced and ubiquitous, protecting clients’ personal details needs to become a higher priority in the real estate industry.

The Bling Ring

In 2008 and 2009, the Bling Ring went on the prowl.

The so called ring was a group of teenagers and young adults from wealthy Los Angeles-area neighborhoods who burglarized the homes of celebrities. In total, the group targeted more than 50 houses in the Calabasas area, and victims included big names such as Lindsey Lohan, Orlando Bloom and Paris Hilton.

Robert Siciliano

Robert Siciliano — co-founder of security firm Protect Now and an Inman contributor — said that the Bling Ring operated by sifting through social media posts from celebrities like Hilton.

“They would pay attention to those social media pages to see when she was out,” he explained. “Then they would burglarize her house.”

In total, the Bling Ring stole cash and other items worth more than $3 million before eventually being caught.

Social media was still in its infancy at the time of the Bling Ring episode. And today, it’s one of many cases that drove awareness about the potential perils of oversharing on social media.

But Siciliano drew a comparison between the case and today’s real estate imagery, saying that in the same way thieves capitalized on social media posts a decade ago, they can theoretically seize on intimate details that show up in things like 3D and 360 degree tours.

“It’s intelligence that a potential bad guy could use to seek out more information on you, or to find out whether you’re at home or away,” Siciliano said. “Everything we put out there is additional intelligence someone could use against us.”

The face in the tour

Sometimes interactive tours and other advanced imagery raise security issues. But other times they bring up more basic privacy questions. Virginia agent and Peer Reputation CEO Steven Wynands experienced this first hand.

Steven Wynands

Wynands told Inman that, like many in the industry, he began doing more 3D tours during the pandemic when in-person tours became impossible. In general, his preferred method was to bring in his photographer and let that person get to work while alone in the house. But in one case last year, he ran into problems.

“My Matterport operator prefers to work solo because it’s faster and easier,” Wynands said. “But these sellers were like, ‘We want to be there incase we need to move stuff.’ In this case that ended up backfiring because they ended up in one of the shots.”

Wynands shared an image of the tour with Inman that showed a man walking up a stairwell. Wynands himself was surprised when he saw it.

“As I was clicking around I was like whoa, ‘That’s my clients face!” Wynands recalled.

After discovering the image, Wynands called his Matterport operator, who told him it was possible to blur the man’s face out. The tour was saved and they were able to use the imagery without publishing the client’s face to the entire world.

But the incident does highlight the way that more advanced forms of real estate imagery create more advanced challenges as well; back in the days of purely 2D photography, it would have been relatively easy to shoot a space while omitting select details, including a person in the room. On the other hand, capturing every square inch of a space requires a much higher level of vigilance.

In Wynands’ case, he has managed to avoid this problem on other listings by having a conversation with clients up front.

“The easiest thing I can tell them is, ‘Make it look like you would want it to look in a magazine,'” he explained. “And they usually say, ‘Oh I get it.'”

How to avoid problems

Wynands isn’t the only one who brings up privacy and security issues in conversations with clients.

Jeff Nitschke is a real estate photographer based in Idaho who has extensive experience with various 360 degree imaging tech. He’s also shot a number of high-end homes that end up having things like valuable artwork on the walls. And he told Inman that one of the first things he does when shooting a space is ask the property owner if there’s “anything you would not like shown in the tour?”

Nitschke also has a written checklist for clients, which he said helps “get folks in the right frame of mind.” Among other things, the checklist encourages homeowners to “hide personal photos, artwork, jewelry or any sensitive items that you don’t want seen.”

This seems like a simple and straightforward approach, and most of the experts who spoke to Inman mentioned the wisdom of having these conversations.

But according to Siciliano, not enough real estate professionals are actually thinking deeply about the security and privacy implications of their marketing strategies.

“They’re not thinking critically about this stuff at all,” Siciliano said when asked about the real estate overall industry’s understanding of the ways in which privacy intersects with things like interactive imagery.

Peter Schravemade

Peter Schravemade, a strategic relationship manager at real estate imaging company BoxBrownie, agreed.

“Not enough agents are thinking about their 360-degree tours in the same way they’re thinking about their static photographs,” Schravemade said.

That may be due to a sense of denial — meaning people think they won’t actually become targets — or lack of awareness. But Siciliano said interactive marketing imagery is only becoming more common, which means security is going to be a growing concern going forward. And the agents who understand that will thrive.

“I think that’s a competitive advantage that a lot of agents aren’t thinking through,” Siciliano said.

Asked what kinds of things agents should exclude from interactive real estate imagery, Siciliano said “anything that would be considered of worth or value.” That includes game consoles, firearms and art.

He also said real estate professionals should be especially cautious about shooting children’s rooms, which could reveal intimate family details, and home offices, which could have sensitive financial documents or even checkbooks that may be legible in a 3D tour.

Siciliano ultimately suggested real estate agents have to “think like a bad guy” in order to appreciate what kinds of things could expose their clients to trouble.

Schravemade added that agents should exclude things like safes, safe rooms, bunkers and security systems from their interactive tours.

“It could be giving away security details of the house that are going to put the homeowners in danger,”  Schravemade said of such features. “There may be an entire floor that you don’t shoot.”

And he ultimately agreed that the best way to approach these situations is by talking to clients up front.

“The preparation is really where it’s at,” Schravemade added.

Images from BoxBrownie show how sensitive items can be removed from real estate marketing images — even those that are interactive. Credit: BoxBrownie

There are more technological solutions as well.

Schravemade noted, for instance that his company can edit items out of real estate imagery, including 360-degree tours. The tool is often lumped in with virtual staging — another growing marketing tool — but can have privacy applications as well.

For instance, Schravemade mentioned the case of a home that included a valuable piece of art that might have been tempting to thieves. Using technology, however, that art was removed from the home’s listing imagery.

Agents and photographers can also blur items out, much as Wynands did with his own client’s face.

Nitschke said that Matterport, CloudPano, Kuula, RicohTours and other platforms have blurring and editing options as well. Zillow 3D Home tours — which became widely available in the U.S. in 2019 — don’t let users blur individual items, Nitschke added, but individual spaces can be excluded from the overall tour.

What agents choose to exclude from tours — either by physically removing items or by digital editing — will vary depending on the wishes of the homeowners. However, several of the experts who spoke to Inman said that in a case such as the home of Paquin and Moyer, they would probably have chosen to obscure at least some of the more personal items.

Either way, it’s clear that as advanced as virtual and interactive marketing is today, there’s still a lot of room for evolution. BoxBrownie found earlier this year, for instance, that most listings still lack good visual marketing. And Schravemade pointed to this fact as evidence that there’s still plenty of room for the field to grow, and for the industry to get smarter when it comes to security.

“In the grand scheme of things, America is a baby when it comes to virtual tours,” Schravemade added. “So whether we like to admit it or not, it is still in it’s infancy.”

Email Jim Dalrymple II

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