EFF: Data Collected From Utility Smart Meters Should Be Protected By The Fourth Amendment

EFF: Data Collected From Utility Smart Meters Should Be Protected By The Fourth Amendment

from the I-always-feel-like-somebody’s-watching-me dept

For years, electric utilities have increasingly embraced smart meters. Roughly 65 million of the devices have been installed in the United States over the last few years, with 57 million of them in consumer homes. The meters provide innumerable benefits to utility companies, often delivering an ocean of new remote access and monitoring tools to better manage the network and reduce meter reading truck rolls. The benefits to consumers (outside of accuracy) have been less notable, including interference with some home routers, as well as the fact that a number of models have been shown to be relatively easily hacked.

In addition to hackability, the sheer volume of data being gobbed up by utility companies tells an awful lot about you (when you wake, when you sleep, when you’re home or away). This has, at times, sparked outrage from locals in places like Naperville, Illinois, where, since 2011, meter opponents have been fighting the intrusive nature of the devices:

“…Opponents say the meters provide so much information that everyone from cops to criminals to marketing departments can learn when people are home and what they do when they’re there. Last year, the anti-meter movement fell just short of collecting enough signatures to place a question on the ballot asking residents to decide whether the devices should be removed. They also have a pending federal lawsuit against the city alleging that their constitutional right to due process has been violated.”

That was 2013. In 2015, the city of Naperville was forced to settle with one smart meter opponent after she sued the city and four of its police officers for violating her constitutional rights. That same year, another man sued the city over what he claimed was an unwarranted search into his home. But last fall, a federal district court in Illinois declared that Americans can’t reasonably expect any privacy in the data collected by these devices, and utility collection of it is completely beyond the protection of the Fourth Amendment.

That case is currently on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. And the EFF and Privacy International have asked the Seventh Circuit if they can weigh in on the case. In a blog post, the EFF points out that the court’s decision was based on a misunderstanding of how the technology actually works. Basically, the court assumed that these new meters work in exactly the same way as their older counterparts, ignoring the significantly-expanded data collected:

“The court was convinced that data collected from smart meters is no different from data collected from analog meters, in terms of what it reveals about what’s going on inside the home. But that’s simply not the case. Smart meters not only produce far more data than analog meters—those set at collecting data in 15-minute intervals produce 2,880 meter readings per month compared to just one monthly reading for analog meters—but the data is also far more intimate. A single monthly read of cumulative household energy use does not reveal how energy is being used throughout the course of a day. But smart meter data does. And its time granularity tells a story about what is going on inside the home for anyone who wishes to read it.”

As we’ve seen with cellular location data, once companies collect this information, it’s often sold to any number of third parties who may be using this data in ways that aren’t always in your best interests. But as Tim Cushing has occassionally noted, getting companies to be forthcoming about what they’re collecting and who they may be selling it to is sometimes difficult, with at least one company suing to thwart transparency efforts on the subject in Seattle. And as Glyn Moody has also noted, this collision between privacy rights and utility data collection on the smart meter front isn’t just an American phenomenon.