Science, Tech & Environment

Smart meters, privacy nightmares

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Photo of a smart meter (Image by Wikimedia user Zuzu (cc:by-sa))

This story was originally covered by PRI's Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.

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Nearly 9 percent of the electric meters in the U.S. are smart, and more are on the way. But those smart meters may be a lot smarter than you think -- and know a lot more about you than you might want.

"The idea behind a smart meter is that it communicates information to the utility," Kevin Doran, a research professor at the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder, explained to PRI's Living on Earth. "In theory, the utility can also use that pathway, if you will, to send information back to the consumer. The utility company could charge more for peak times, or it could even turn off appliances when they're not being used but could be saving electricity.

Information from smart meters could help utilities manage energy more efficiently, but it could also be used for more nefarious purposes. The data could hold information on what kinds of appliances people have in their houses, which could be very valuable to marketers and advertisers. According to Doran, they could figure out "how often you arrive home around bar time, are you a restless sleeper, do you get up frequently throughout the night." He explains:

An insurance company looking at this information could see a pattern that shows that this person is routinely coming home at this period of time, and then make a correlation or an assumption that says, 'Ah, perhaps they're out there drinking, and we should have higher premiums for them.' So, it isn't just the data. The data is one thing - but it's also the kind of sophisticated correlations and comparisons and data parsing that can be done on that data to figure out all sorts of things about a person's life.

If companies were able to cross-reference the data with more personal information, like medical or financial records, it could have serious privacy implications.

The future of that information is still unclear. "This is a battleground," according to Doran, "between utility companies, third party service providers that would like to be able to use this data to help customers manage their information, and people like marketers and advertisers who would like access to that information, and then consumer privacy advocates and consumers themselves."

The policy makers who should be mediating this battle should be aware of the privacy implications, but don't often understand, in part because the issues are so new.

Still, Doran said that he would install a smart meter, if given the opportunity. "I think that we can do this," he told Living on Earth. "I think that we can do it in a way that makes sense for environmental, energy efficiency purposes, and that we can also figure out a way to make sure that this data is used appropriately."

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Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about "Living on Earth."