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Smart Meters: “A Surveillance-capable Infrastructure”

In a letter dated May 25, 2017, the ACLU of Washington raised “significant concerns about the lack of protections for privacy, as well as lack of transparency, in the implementation of Seattle City Light’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure.” [1] [2]

Although the concerns specifically address the planned smart meter program for Seattle, Washington, many of the identified issues apply to all smart meters being deployed across the nation and the world.

Here are several  quotations from the ACLU of Washington letter [2]:

“We have consistently advocated for privacy protections and against government surveillance without appropriate checks and balances. Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) is a surveillance-capable infrastructure that is being rapidly implemented in Seattle with little public transparency as to its privacy impacts and how they will be mitigated; without appropriate regard for the principles of Seattle’s own Privacy Program; and without a meaningful opportunity for individuals to offer informed consent.”

AMI, including the associated ‘smart meters’, are a surveillance-capable infrastructure that can reveal intimate details of individuals’ lives.

The smart meters to be installed in the homes of Seattleites collect far more granular data than SCL’s current, non-connected electric meters.  Not only have smart meters been shown to be hackable, but they collect readings far more frequently and with a greater range of metrics than a once-a-month reading of a single power usage metric from the meters they replace.  According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

‘[S]mart meters also [reveal] intimate details about what’s going on inside the home. By collecting energy use data at high frequencies—typically every 5, 15, or 30 minutes—smart meters know exactly how much electricity is being used, and when. Patterns in your smart meter data can reveal when you are home, when you are sleeping, when you take a shower, and even whether you cook dinner on the stove or in the microwave. These are all private details about what’s going on inside your home…’

The surveillance capabilities of the technology potentially go even further — for example, German researchers demonstrated the ability to determine what film was being shown on a given TV based on its unique power profile.”

The opt-out offered by the City of Seattle is inadequate, expensive, and meaningless until actual privacy commitments around AMIs are offered.

SCL’s presentation showed a low opt-out uptake of 104 individuals, which should hardly be surprising given the many ways in which the opt-out misses the mark.  In our letter to SCL dated August 15th, 2016 — to which the City did not respond — we pointed out the flaws in the proposed opt-out policy.  No changes were made in response, which means the opt-out still suffers from the following problems:

– The opt-out fails to protect privacy. …
– The opt-out is extremely expensive. …
– Most Seattleites are unaware of the opt-out. …
– Any opt-out is meaningless without clear and publicized use and sharing restrictions for AMI and its associated data.”

Utilities everywhere deny the facts that smart meters represent “a surveillance-capable Infrastructure.” [3]  Unfortunately, unless more consumers become aware of the manner in which smart meters invade their privacy and correspondingly act in vigorous opposition to them, privacy invading smart meters will continue to be deployed.

References and Notes

[1] “Seattle’s Smart Meter Project Lacks Protections for Privacy,” ACLU of Washington Press Release, May 26, 2017, at https://www.aclu-wa.org/news/seattle%E2%80%99s-smart-meter-project-lacks-protections-privacy

[2] Letter to the Seattle Energy and Environmental Committee regarding the City’s Advanced Metering Program from the ACLU of Washington, dated May 25, 2017; available at https://skyvisionsolutions.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/ami-letter-to-seattle-council-from-aclu-of-wa-052517.pdf

[3] Examples of utilities denying the facts and deflecting legitimate concerns (i.e., disseminating misinformation):

“Just like standard meters, smart meters will measure the amount of electricity you use – not how you use it.  They are not surveillance devices.  Smart meters only contain the meter identifier and total energy information.”

“Measurement of electricity usage by a utility is not surveillance.”

The Facts:  Utilities claim smart meters are not surveillance devices, yet the repeated data gathering by smart meters beyond that required for billing purposes can reasonably be considered to represent unwanted surveillance and stalking.

For additional “insight” on this topic, please refer to “Smart Meter Surveillance versus ‘Very Granular Insights’,” at https://smartgridawareness.org/2015/09/22/smart-meter-surveillance-versus-very-granular-insights/

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