Last week, I experienced a momentary power interruption at my home in Phoenix. I thought nothing of it; these sorts of things happen occasionally here.
Later that day, I noticed a note on my door. It was from the electric company and apologized for the momentary power outage. The reason the power had to be temporarily disconnected, it said, was so the company could install a "smart meter." I walked around to the where the meter is located and confirmed that a shiny new meter was in place. It looked much nicer than the old one.
Why had the electric company installed the meter? According to the note, it would no longer be necessary for someone to come read the meter monthly, and then send me a bill. Now, the electric company could read the meter remotely and generate the bill automatically. By reducing labor costs, I would benefit with lower bills, or at least with electricity rates not increasing as quickly.
However, my smart meter doesn't merely tally up how much electricity I consume and send me a bill each month. It also has two-way communication. The electric company can actually query my smart meter and track my electricity consumption minute-by-minute. When I turn on the stove at night, the electricity company knows I'm preparing dinner. When the water heater comes on, it knows I'm taking a shower. (Click here to see a "load signature" from a typical home.)
The electric company can use this information for many purposes. If I use "too much" energy compared to my neighbors, it can send me a note suggesting ways to conserve. It can also sell this information to anyone it chooses. Under U.S. law, I have no "expectation of privacy" to information I voluntarily turn over to someone else. And by signing up for electricity service, I have "voluntarily" given the electric company permission to use this information any way it chooses.
For instance, it could sell the information to my insurance company, who could charge me a higher rate for auto coverage if electrical records indicate a spike in electricity use shortly after bar-closing time in Arizona. After all, I might have driving while intoxicated, then arrive home and turn on the television. If the "electrical signature" the company receives from my home shows large spikes consistent with certain types of lighting, it may notify police of its suspicions that I'm cultivating marijuana there. And if I begin buying "smart appliances," my smart meter will interact with my smart appliances to track electricity consumption per appliance.
Now that I have my very own smart meter, I'm apparently on the cutting edge. Only about eight million smart meters have been installed in the United States, but the Obama administration wants 50 million more installed in the next five years.
What if you don't want your electric company to track your electricity consumption minute-by-minute? That's just too bad. Just keep that in mind next time you switch on the lights for your basement "grow op."
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Nestmann
(An earlier version of this post was published by The Sovereign Society, https://banyanhill.com/)