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Feds Want Every Home ‘Metered’


As part of a program authorized by Congress, the federal government is increasingly compelling power companies in the United States to install “smart meters” that transmit data on power consumption directly to the government and to any other party that chooses to purchase it. Often, this data is converted by the power company into a detailed breakdown of electricity usage, showing when you are home, when you run major appliances like a stove or dryer and when you turn your lights on and off.

This information gives anyone accessing it a profile of what you do when you are at home.

Utility provider records are the primary means by which private data on individuals is collected and sold in the information market. Websites that promise they will “help you find anyone” are often dependent on utility databases, primarily electric, water, gas and phone, which are compiled in conjunction with public real estate, tax and court records to create profiles
of an individual. Utility records are particularly useful in locating individuals who rent, rather than own, property.

These records are also already available to the government. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies are major purchasers of personal data on American citizens, all of which is provided on contract through private companies to avoid the few remaining U.S. laws limiting federal intrusions on privacy.

Federal subpoena power and congressionally authorized “national security letters” are often used to obtain a variety of more detailed data from utility providers, including cell phone triangulations and, at times, power usage. The law on power usage derived from efforts to investigate marijuana growers, who utilize large amounts of power in secret greenhouses to provide lights for their plants and who often use magnets to tamper with meter readings to conceal their activities.


Smart meters, though, differ from regular mechanical readers in that they provide a continuous stream of data to a central database, giving meter readings at different times and noting substantial changes in power usage. A person asleep with the lights out, for instance, uses less power than one awake with the lights on. Dryers and stoves, along with certain other high-amperage appliances like the aforementioned growing lights or even a network of computer equipment, use large amounts of power relative to the general house power, and thus their use can also be detected.

Previously, in order to monitor a mechanical meter’s usage, a person would have to go to the meter and look at it. Now, electric companies—or anyone they sell data to—can simply run searches in a database for unusual activity, then dispatch agents to a home to observe it and see if there is anything going on the government—or any private party—may be interested in.

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(Issue # 31, August 1, 2011)

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