“Advanced metering infrastructure” (AMI) or “smart” meters, where implemented, are eliminating the last vestiges of individual privacy in modern society. The meters allow utility companies and potentially, government intelligence agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA), malicious hackers, and vendors to obtain detailed, granular data on when and what appliances are being used in the home. Such technology could be used as a surveillance tool by the state, in violation of fourth amendment constitutionally protected privacy which guarantees freedom from unreasonable invasion of privacy and unreasonable search.
They could also be used to augment data mining projects by marketing companies who unscrupulously view data collection as the next big growth industry. In California, this has already occurred where utilities sold data to third party companies as a way to generate additional revenues, despite legal concerns over privacy.
Landlords could have the ability to spy on tenants using online utility data portals. Hackers could gain knowledge of when an individual is home or not based on “smart” meter data, allowing for burglary, “home” invasion, or other malicious actions. Government intelligence agencies could use “smart” meter data to monitor the movements of anyone they deem a threat, regardless of the presence of evidence for probable cause. In the post 9-11 era, the need to obtain search warrants based on the more stringent civil rights standard of probable cause is easily circumvented with the use of subpoena granted by judges in secret FISA courts.
Many individuals may feel apathetic and unmoved by such privacy concerns. Tediously long user agreements for social media websites and “smart” phones are mentally bypassed with one tap on the keyboard, accepting the terms without having read them. NSA’s Prism program vacuums vast quantities of phone and email information, all in the name of national security, and the “war on terror”. In 2005, George Bush infamously uttered, “the Constitution is nothing but a goddamned piece of paper.”
Do we agree with him him? Do we even know what the Bill of Rights says? What have we become as a nation of individuals when we embrace every shiny new technology without critically reflecting on its far reaching implications for a free, open, and democratic society?
As recently as May, 2014, a White House report issued sobering warnings regarding the incremental expansion of privacy invasion, concluding that “power consumption data collected from demand-response systems show when you move about your house.” In this same report, emphasis was added to the need for consent to be obtained before gathering personal data. However utilities installing “smart” meters typically assume consent unless it is explicitly denied by the customer.
Seattle City Council officials have offered guarantees that confidentiality will be protected. However, the term confidentiality should not be conflated with privacy. When data is obtained, whether with consent or not, privacy is irrevocably lost. Confidentiality is a promise to keep that data secure, at least until it is destroyed. However, it is specious for legislators to offer such guarantees, even if coded into law, as future elected governments could vote to change or otherwise ignore such guarantees as they see fit. Furthermore, such guarantees of confidentially are overconfident – there are few absolute guarantees for the privacy of data once it has been obtained. Incidence of hackers compromising sophisticated computer networks or human mismanagement causing data releases, is commonplace in today’s world. In the last few years, this year, hackers breached computer systems at Target and Home Depot, and JP Morgan Chase, collecting credit card information, emails, phone numbers, from over a hundred million individuals collectively.
While “smart” meter proponents justify collection of granular data as being useful for energy conservation, such claims actually have little bearing on reality. There are no pilot projects showing significant savings in energy usage from “smart” meters. (See also The Environment). Best practices model which follow the 2014 White House report recommendations use the minimum amount of data collection necessary, which in the case of utility companies is a single reading obtained once a month, or bimonthly. Except in rare situations, this requirement is easily met by human meter readers. There is simply no valid justification for the collection of such massive quantities of utility data.