Utilities and privacy: Smart meters in Seattle

Today the Seattle City Council Energy and Environment committee held a special meeting to gather public feedback on Seattle City Light’s new strategic plan. You can see video of the meeting and public comment here, including commentary on “smart meters”.

The strategic plan calls for replacing City Light’s nearly 400,000 manually read meters with technologically up-to-date digital meters (Advanced Metering Infrastructure/AMI)–also known as “smart meters”.

The advantages listed by the plan include flexible billing and quicker outage notices, user-friendly access to the information, quickly and cheaply, on the City Light website, and improved responsiveness at the Call Center.

These are excellent and well-intended reasons for moving toward smart meters.

Likewise, the city’s Climate Action Plan, which also calls for smart meters, is designed to move the city to carbon neutrality by 2050. In this context the advantage is presented as the idea that feedback on utilities use will help customers conserve energy by understanding their own use patterns more accurately and being able to compare them with averages and ideals. More good motives.

Unfortunately, smart meters present their own privacy and security problems. According to a February 2012 Congressional Research Service Report entitled Smart Meters: Privacy and Cybersecurity, the Department of Energy reported that by matching data with known appliance load signatures, smart meters will be able to reveal:

  • People’s daily schedules,
  • Their appliances and electronic equipment, and
  • Whether they use certain types of medical equipment.

Utilities will have the data to discern the behavior of occupants in their home over a period of time, an unprecedented amount of government visibility into private homes. They will also be under budget and lobbying pressure to sell that data to third parties

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) cites a list of potential privacy consequences of Smart Grid Systems including identity theft, activity censorship, profiling, tracking behavior of renters/leasers, and real-time surveillance.

Smart meters are another example of Seattle’s need for effective privacy oversight.