New energy measuring devices found in more and more homes, known as smart meters, are part of an initiative to conserve energy across the U.S. and Europe, with 36 million already installed here, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Smart meters fit into the bigger concept of the “smart grid” that would help to cut consumer costs and solve infrastructure problems more quickly. It all works together because the smart meter can send moment-to-moment information wirelessly to power centers.
So, what’s not to like? A lot say privacy advocates.
"It's not hard to imagine a divorce lawyer subpoenaing this information, an insurance company interpreting the data in a way that allows it to penalize customers, or criminals intercepting the information to plan a burglary," said the private nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2010 in a blog post.
How could a wireless device that sends only information about energy usage be invasive? As National Geographic
notes, because the devices track energy use minute-to-minute, the data could show how many people live in a residence, what types of devices are being used, when they are being used, and at what frequency. The fact the meters are not yet widespread is another factor; consumers just simply aren’t aware of the issues at risk.
A data watchdog group in the European Union, where 10 percent of households already have the smart meters, warned last year that the smart meters could show when families "are away on holiday or at work, if someone uses a specific medical device or a baby-monitor, how they like to spend their free time and so on."
Though the risks sound drastic, George Arnold, national coordinator for smart grid interoperability at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, believes bringing awareness to the issue will be the first step in protecting privacy.
"Protecting the privacy of the information [on the smart grid] has been taken very seriously,” he told National Geographic.
Currently, there are no federal and few state laws governing data related to consumers’ utility use.
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