Surveillance Society: New electric meters can report usage in real time
Chances are that you’ve never given your electricity meter a second thought. But in Pennsylvania, it’s increasingly likely that your meter is thinking about you.
Under a 2008 state law, utilities have been installing so-called “smart meters” statewide. Unlike traditional meters, which compile a running total of monthly electricity usage, smart meters can track usage nearly in real time, and transmit it to the utility multiple times an hour. The industry says the meters will benefit the environment and consumers, but not everyone is convinced.
“The privacy issues are astronomical,” said Lisa Nancollas, a Mifflin County Tea Party activist with the group Stop Smart Meters in Pennsylvania. “They’re able to come up with a graph of exactly what you are doing 24 hours a day.”
It may seem odd to worry about whether Big Brother is watching you toast your bagel. But the government itself acknowledges that smart meters can be a surveillance tool.
“If law enforcement officers obtained near-real time data on a consumer’s electricty usage … their ability to monitor household activities would be amplified significantly,” reported a 2012 study by the Congressional Research Service.
That’s in part because each appliance has a distinctive electric heartbeat that meters can track. Your refrigerator may have a low steady pulse, while baking a cake may spike the needle like a temblor along the San Andreas fault. “By combining appliance usage patterns,” the Congressional study found, “an observer could discern the behavior of occupants in a home over a period of time.”
The industry contends that the meters pose minimal privacy risks.