Consider the privacy risks of ‘smart’ meters in Iowa

The Gazette

Consider the privacy risks of ‘smart’ meters in Iowa

Researchers warn about the future of the electrical grid

Fri., December 21, 2018


A bank of smart meters, one for each unit, is installed at Monroe Place in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Alliant’s new meters are not as “smart” as some other models. The company says they only transmit total household energy usage and “diagnostic information” not detailed private information, but the systems of the not-too-distant future could monitor individual appliances.

There are many potential benefits to smarter electrical networks. They will negate the need for in-person meter readers and allow suppliers to respond more quickly to outages and demand surges, along with empowering customers to use energy more efficiently. Yet while technology researchers have been writing for more than a decade about potential abuse of energy data, most consumers are unaware of the risks.

In a 2010 paper titled “Private memoirs of a smart meter,” University of Massachusetts researchers said they could discern detailed information from household-level energy data, including the number of occupants at a given time, sleeping patterns, meal routines, and work or school schedules. A team of German scholars reported in 2012 they were able to determine what channel a television was displaying based on a home’s electricity data. They called this an “unprecedented invasions of consumer privacy.”

I’m sure utility companies are following industry standards for cybersecurity, but even the best systems eventually will fail. This year alone, several major high-tech companies have reported significant data breaches.

Most of us will willingly give up some level of privacy if it makes our lives simpler or more productive, but we can’t make an educated decision if we aren’t aware of the risks. That wouldn’t be smart.

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