ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Dec. 26, 2017) – A bill prefiled in the Maryland House would require police to get a warrant before obtaining any information collected by “smart meter” technology. Passage of the bill would help protect privacy and ensure personal information doesn’t end up in government databases.
Del. Alfred Carr (D-18) prefiled House Bill 56 (HB56) in October. The legislation would prohibit law enforcement officers from obtaining utility data recorded by a smart meter without a search warrant.
Smart meters monitor home energy usage in minute detail in real time. The devices transmit data to the utility company where it gets stored in databases. Anybody with access to the data can download it for analysts. Without specific criteria limiting access to the data, these devices create significant privacy issues.
The proliferation of smart meters creates significant privacy concerns. The data collected can tell anybody who holds it a great deal about what goes on inside a home. It can reveal when residents are inside, asleep or on vacation. It can also pinpoint “unusual” energy use, and could someday serve to help enforce “energy usage” regulations. The ACLU summarized the privacy issues surrounding smart meters in a recent report.
“The temptation to use the information that will be collected from customers for something other than managing electrical loads will be strong – as it has been for cell phone tracking data and GPS information. Police may want to know your general comings and goings or whether you’re growing marijuana in your basement under grow lights. Advertisers will want the information to sell you a new washing machine to replace the energy hog you got as a wedding present 20 years ago. Information flowing in a smart grid will become more and more ‘granular’ as the system develops.”
The privacy issues aren’t merely theoretical. According to information obtained by the California ACLU, utility companies in the state have disclosed information gathered by smart meters on thousands of customers. San Diego Gas and Electric alone disclosed data on more than 4,000 customers. The vast majority of disclosures were in response to subpoenas by government agencies “often in drug enforcement cases or efforts to find specific individuals,” according to SFGate.
“Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network watchdog group, said the sheer number of data disclosures made by SDG&E raised the possibility that government agencies wanted to sift through large amounts of data looking for patterns, rather than conducting targeted investigations.”
Requiring police to get a warrant before accessing smart meter data would take the first step toward protecting private information and would help ensure data doesn’t end up in government databases.
Federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.
According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators … have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.
Warrant requirements significantly limit the amount of information available to share.
The federal government serves as a major source of funding for smart meters. A 2009 program through the U.S. Department of Energy distributed $4.5 billion for smart grid technology. The initial projects were expected to fund the installation of 1.8 million smart meters over three years.
The federal government lacks any constitutional authority to fund smart grid technology. The easiest way to nullify such programs is to simply not participate.
If you have the option to opt out of smart meter programs, you should. The best way to ensure your private information doesn’t end up in the hands of government agencies is to not allow the collection of your data to begin with. Several states have proposed laws to ensure utility customers have the right to opt out of smart meter programs.
We’ve seen a similar opt-out movement undermining Common Core in New York. Opting out follows a strategy James Madison advised in Federalist #46. “Refusal to cooperate with officers of the Union” provides a powerful means to fight back against government overreach. Such actions in multiple states would likely be effective in bringing down federal smart meter programs.
Passage of HB56 would set the stage for follow-up legislation to protect the right of customers to not install smart meters.
HB56 will be officially introduced on Jan. 10 and referred to the Judiciary Committee where it will need to pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.