New 'smart' electrical meters raise privacy issues

Nov 06, 2009 by Daniel Silva
The control room at a power plant is pictured in this file photo. The new "smart meters" utilities are installing in homes around the world to reduce energy use raise fresh privacy issues because of the wealth of information about consumer habits they reveal, experts said Friday.

The new "smart meters" utilities are installing in homes around the world to reduce energy use raise fresh privacy issues because of the wealth of information about consumer habits they reveal, experts said Friday.

The devices send data on household directly to utilities on a regular basis, allowing the firms to manage demand more efficiently and advise households when it is cheaper to turn on appliances.

But privacy experts gathered in Madrid for a three-day conference which wraps up Friday warned that the meters can also reveal intimate details about customers' habits such as when they eat, what time they go to sleep or how much television they watch.

With cars expected to be fuelled increasingly by electricity in the coming years, the new meters could soon be used to gather information on consumer behaviour beyond the home, they added.

"The collection and storage and retention of the data makes it vulnerable to security breaches as well as to government access," Christopher Wolf, the co-chairman and founder of the Washington-based Future of Privacy Forum, told AFP.

"It is really an issue of how much information about us can be collected by a third party, how much do they really need, how long do they need to keep it, what should the rules be on retention and when should destruction of it occur."

More than eight million "smart meters" have already been installed in the United States and the number is projected by the government to rise to 52 million by 2012.

Last month US President Barack Obama announced 3.4 billion dollars (2.3 billion euros) in grants to modernise the country's , part of which will pay for about 18 million "smart meters."

The European Parliament passed an energy package in April which proposed that 80 percent of electricity consumers have "smart meters" by 2020.

In Italy 85 percent of homes already have installed, the highest penetration rate in Europe, according to the Future of Privacy Forum. France is second with a 25 percent penetration rate.

"This is certainly the next stage, the new frontier, in the potential for privacy invasion," Elias Quinn, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Energy and Environmental Security at the University of Colorado, told AFP.

"The potential is great for privacy invasion depending on who can have access to this information. We are kind of walking into 'smart meter' development blindly. There is no general informed consent."

Utilities could be tempted to sell the data on their customers' behaviour to marketers who use it to pitch advertising geared to their habits, said Quinn.

A restless sleeper who gets up frequently throughout the night -- identified by electricity consumption records that show he frequently turns on the lights -- could be targeted with adverts for sleep aids for example.

Insurance firms, meanwhile, could use the data to justify charging higher fees to a driver whose consumption records indicate he often drives while sleep deprived or regularly gets home at around the time the bars close.

The utilities would be following the lead of Internet service providers which already gear online advertising based on the content of the Web page being viewed by their customers.

"The personal benefits of the 'smart meters' outweigh the risks. The real danger is that people do not know what the risks are," said Quinn, who recommends laws that restrict the resale of data as a way to prevent abuses.

(c) 2009 AFP

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User comments : 13

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SMMAssociates
1 / 5 (3) Nov 06, 2009
bHo's "energy" plans appear to include mandatory installation of such meters....

Think about it.... :(

Birthmark
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 06, 2009
I don't see a problem with this, I mean yeah it IS an invasion of our privacy, but they monitor the consumers' habits, that probably would be a good thing for us, they would know what to sell, and other stuff.
Bob_Kob
2.8 / 5 (4) Nov 06, 2009
I don't see whats so private about using electricity, provided you're not growing weed.
pt30
2 / 5 (4) Nov 06, 2009
Anyone who had privacy concerns in regards to electricity meters obviously has something to hide.
Lord_jag
4.7 / 5 (3) Nov 06, 2009
What's wrong with Big brother watching you if you have nothing to hide, right?

Wrong. If we give over control of our lives, then you have no right to say if they control you in a direction you don't want to go.
pt30
5 / 5 (1) Nov 06, 2009
What's wrong with Big brother watching you if you have nothing to hide, right?

Wrong. If we give over control of our lives, then you have no right to say if they control you in a direction you don't want to go.


But the same lack of privacy already exists with ISPs for internet surfing, cell phone providers for cell phone use and GPS systems etc.
I don't feel controlled by these companies. Do you?
Egnite
not rated yet Nov 06, 2009
I don't see whats so private about using electricity, provided you're not growing weed.


You could still grow! You'd just have to limit yourself to a low powered light source and have fewer plants.

But the same lack of privacy already exists with ISPs for internet surfing, cell phone providers for cell phone use and GPS systems etc.
I don't feel controlled by these companies. Do you?


Maybe they don't but all the information they require is there for them if they want to start controlling us. What's stopping them from throttling net connections during peak useage times? Or closing popular side roads which avoid tolls? We might feel safe at the moment (are we?) but who's to say the next government in power will use this information as cautiously?

And just because there is a lack of privacy elsewhere, that's no reason to give up some other privacy. Lol what next? If they want to install cctv into every home for some "benficial" reason, would you be happy with it?
jgelt
not rated yet Nov 06, 2009
Dependence has a price.
You can always make your own electricity.
Independence also has a price.
Paradox
not rated yet Nov 07, 2009
If you're not worried about "invasion of privacy", you probably have not thought about it very much.
CyberRat
not rated yet Nov 07, 2009
They wanted to enforce it in the Netherlands too, with maximum of 6 months jail of you resist the installation of the smart meter. Lucky they canceled the plan, because the system was proven not secure, anyone could tap the information, so buglers could easily know when your away. Second, it IS invasion in your private life, any one who thinks they have nothing to hide please wake up, Hitler would be jealous about the information that is collected these days! (like fingerprints in passports etc etc)

Bob_Kob
not rated yet Nov 07, 2009
What's wrong with Big brother watching you if you have nothing to hide, right?

Wrong. If we give over control of our lives, then you have no right to say if they control you in a direction you don't want to go.


Its electricity. The work done in making electrical products do stuff. What in the world could anyone do with information on how much power you use on a daily basis, its not saying what products are using it.

Next you'd be saying scary big brother will do something if they monitored water usage. Wow they know when you have drank water!! Theyre out of control!!
TheEyeofTheBeholder
not rated yet Nov 07, 2009
Does any one know if the 'smart meter' can read the solar/wind/hydro being produced with out having a second meter have to be installed? The newer 'electronic' meter only read in one direction, deliberately designed to screw alternative home owner 'producers'.
rambler
not rated yet Nov 22, 2009
If Big Brother knows how much energy you use, he could require you to close off sections of your house you don't use, or house less fortunate people in the parts of your house you don't use all the time. It's quite a stretch but you have to imagine the horrible to avoid it. It's one step closer to a controlled society, with the Man knowing too much and controlling your life. It sounds like a good idea on google.com....but the Fabian Society likes to build its superstructure slowly...check it out.