Staff Columnist

Consider the privacy risks of 'smart' meters in Iowa

Researchers warn about the future of the electrical grid

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)
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)

Recall the Christmas party scene from the 1990 classic “Home Alone.”

The young hero, Kevin McCallister, tethers his limbs to a pair of mannequins and tugs the ropes to put the figures in motion. A cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan circles the room affixed to a toy train. With the drapes closed and all the lights on inside, the silhouettes create the illusion of a lively holiday shindig.

“We better get out of here before somebody sees us,” burglar Harry tells partner Marv in a van outside of the house.

While the bandits do eventually infiltrate the home, the party scene hints at a strategy practiced by real-life home invaders — monitor houses and attack when they’re empty.

Now imagine the criminals are computer hackers. They might know you recently bought plane tickets or posted vacation pictures online. Someday soon, they might be able to see that your television and microwave have been unusually idle the past few days, suggesting the house is vacant.

Privacy advocates worry that scenario will be just one of many unintended outcomes to the nation’s shift to a “smart” electrical grid.

The debate over “smart” energy has reached Iowa. Alliant Energy is outfitting its Iowa customers with advanced meters that will transmit usage data remotely. State regulators are now considering objections from users who want to keep their old meters, but don’t want to pay an additional fee to the energy company. That challenge stems largely from concerns about health effects, rather than privacy.

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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.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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