Privacy and health activists long have raised opposition to smart meters – the technological wizards that monitor power usage in a home, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis, and report it to the utility that owns them. And sometimes others.
Now an appeals court has affirmed that their readings constitute a “search” under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which establishes “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
But the judges also found that the “search” that was done by the devices was “reasonable.”
Whether the judgment is rendered in future cases regarding the use of the meters, oftentimes mandated by the utility, remains to be seen.
In this case, it was the Naperville Smart Meter Awareness organization that sued Naperville, Illinois, over the meters required by the city-owned utility.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center said the meters “can reveal personal behavior patterns and enable real-time surveillance.”
The ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the “ever-accelerating pace of technological development carries serious privacy implications” and “smart meters are no exception.”
The court said the “searches” done by the meters are reasonable in light of the “cost reductions and service improvements” provided but suggested the conclusion may not be a final decision.
“Our conclusion could change” depending on how much data – and how frequently – the meters send data readings.
Or if law enforcement ever were given easier access.
“EPIC has long warned about the privacy implications of the smart grid and filed an amicus brief in United States v. Carpenter, a recent Supreme Court case that recognized Fourth Amendment protections for cell phone location data,” the organization said.
WND reported only two years ago that James Clapper – then the director of national intelligence under Barack Obama – said he believed the government could use the information transmitted to the internet from a washing machine, thermostat, television, refrigerator or favorite video game against citizens.
Many of the meters are equipped today with a computer chip, constantly feeding information about their owners back to utilities, manufacturers and other data networks.
Clapper told Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time the government considers the information fair game against people it suspects of terrorism or other crimes.
The so-called “internet of things” is providing a bevy of personal information about Americans, many of whom are completely unaware of the dragnet they are tied into.
Smart meters measure, in real time, a homeowner’s electricity usage and what appliance or device the usage is coming from, feeding the information to the local utility provider. Many televisions are capable of picking up sound and motion through microphones and motion sensors. Laptop computers have built-in cameras.
The 7th Circuit decision pointed to a previous ruling that found police use of sensors to determine heat emanating from the home was a search.
“The data collected by Naperville can be used to draw the exact inference that troubled the court in [that precedent],” the ruling said. “There, law enforcement ‘concluded that [a home’s occupant] was using halide lights to grow marijuana in his house’ based on an excessive amount of energy coming from the home.
“Here too, law enforcement could conclude that an occupant was using grow lights from incredibly high meter readings, particular if the power was drawn at odd hours. In fact, the data collected by Naperville could prove even more intrusive.
“By analyzing the energy consumption of a home over time in concert with appliance load profiles for grow lights, Naperville law enforcement could ‘conclude’ that a resident was using the lights with more confidence that those using thermal imaging could ever hope for.”
The smart meters are not yet in “general” public use, the ruling said.
And technology is changing fast, which “carries serious privacy implications.”
The meters’ information, “even when collected at 15-minute intervals, reveals details about the home that would be otherwise unavailable to government officials [without] a physical search.”
But the judges said, under the circumstances of the case, the “search” was reasonable, since the collection was for utility and efficiency goals only.
“Were a city to collect the data at shorter intervals, our conclusion could change. Likewise, our conclusion might change if the data was more easily accessible to law enforcement or other city officials outside the utility.”
In 2012, more than 100 Texans joined together to petition public utilities regulators to ban the meters because of their health threats.
One of the case participants explained: “After decades of study the scientific community and government health related agencies are warning people to avoid additional exposures to RF and EMF radiation because it has been linked to many ailments including minor issues, such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, to life threatening, such as heart function interference, brain function interference, jamming of pacemakers and insulin injectors, DNA disruption causing birth defects and even cancer.”