Your Power Company is Watching

Energy Monitors

Image courtesy of Navetas Energy Management

Your Power Company is Watching

By Thursday Review staff | published June 13, 2014 |

Did you see the Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report? In that film, Tom Cruise’s character is bombarded with advertisements—at home, in transit, even in public spaces—ads which have been carefully tailored to match his habits and patterns. In the movie we understand that the technology works because of retinal-recognition and facial-recognition devices which, in that gleaming future, track a person’s every move.

But some of the gimmicks employed in Minority Report are no longer science fiction. In fact, some of those high tech tracking tools are becoming routine in our world right now.

Major retailers are installing facial-recognition hardware so that the moment you enter their location—whether it is a dress shop, a toy store, a coffee bistro, a restaurant, or a men’s suit store—the retailer can instantly send a coupon or promotional incentive to your smartphone. Coupled with all those video cameras on streets, in public spaces and along sidewalks, that means you can be tracked fairly closely.

Facebook admits that it knows so much about you that it can begin—immediately—targeting ads with hyper-accuracy to your interests and likes, and, beginning this week, Facebook will offer an explanation to its users of why those ads are appearing. Likewise, Linked-In can track your clicks and hovers so closely that it too can zone-in on your reading habits and browsing patterns.

And the NSA has been found infamously able to easily harvest enormous piles of data about the lives of individuals, both in the U.S. and abroad—and if Edward Snowden is to be believed, based on what he told NBC News recently—the government snoops can even form remarkably accurate dossiers on our lives, just from our clicks, texts and emails. The NSA may even have a way to activate your smartphone.

But what about the power company? No way, you say. The local power company is just a bunch of blue collar guys in noisy trucks repairing wires and replacing transformers when they blow. We curse the power company when the monthly bill arrives, but we applaud it when its employees get the electricity flowing after a storm. But that’s about the extent of it. We certainly don’t think those people are watching us…do we?

Well, the technology now exists for the power company to form a remarkably accurate dossier on you, and though it may not be as comprehensive as Facebook or the NSA, a new high tech electric meter means that what the local energy company knows about you is, well, surprising.

Much to the chagrin of privacy advocates, an experimental program has been launched in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States to deploy smart meters. The devices are made through a partnership between British software company Onzo, hardware-maker Navetas, and several major advertising and marketing agencies (chief among them is London-based WPP, the parent company of J. Walter Thomson, Ogilvy Group, and Young & Rubican, and others).

The new electric meter can, put quite simply, detect and/or harvest highly detailed information about the goings-on inside your home, and then transmit that data back to energy companies. The energy company can then share that data with marketers, ad agencies, and technology firms.

The experimental program may seem uncanny and even a bit creepy to some, but energy technologists suggest that it was only a matter of time before such devices were deployed. In fact, for many energy companies, this kind of high tech monitoring of the home was inevitable.

Energy companies see the new technology as a way to more smartly manage the power grid, and even help customers more efficiently control their energy use. The data being harvested by the smart meters will include consumption rates by hour and minute, rapid changes based on outside variables like heat or cold (meaning energy providers can make quick decisions about spikes and overloads), and will even have the capacity to form a profile of the types of appliances being used in each home—including brand name, model, and level of efficiency. Devices which can be monitored closely will include hot water heaters, microwave ovens, toaster ovens, refrigeration systems, air conditioning and heating systems, and even home entertainment.

According the Navetas website, smart energy monitors are equipped with software that "can monitor the energy usage of major appliances around the home without the need for additional plugs or devices." The website describes the device as self-learning and says that it "requires no human intervention." Navetas also manufactures smart gas meters as well. Other companies are also beginning to produce smart devices for home energy and apppliance management.

But the technology doesn’t stop there. Some of the smart meters will also be integrated into cable TV and internet usage, and meters with the ability to track television viewing habits and computer activity (upload speeds, download speeds, browser usage, and file size) are already being tested. The meters will also be able to detect with great accuracy whether devices are in use, in sleep mode, or in an idle state. It is these aspects of the smart meter which has some privacy advocates deeply concerned.

Already several public interest groups in the U.S., the U.K., Ireland and Canada have started major publicity campaigns in opposition to this new technology, which they consider a blunt invasion of privacy. There have also been protests in Ireland and in Australia.

But power companies see the smart meter as a valuable tool for managing energy efficiency, and privacy issues aside, some green advocates agree that smarter, high tech metering systems may allow for a more proactive management of the increasingly strained energy demands around the world. The new smart meters may also have the potential to save consumers money, and as home appliances get smarter, the new meters will work in close tandem with the devices in the home—regulating and tweaking appliances for maximum efficiency.

Still, civil libertarians and privacy advocates see the new technology as a de facto home invasion for the purposes of targeting ads. They point to the fact that major ad agencies are behind the project, and suggest that the next logical step—in any such program of collaboration between electrical meter and household activity—would be marketing campaigns and ads right in the home. For still others, a big clue to the true reach of the new high tech meter is that both Google and Amazon have expressed a deep interest in investing in smart meters. Google has already revealed its plans to begin developing apps for refrigerators, coffee-makers and other kitchen appliances, and both Google and Amazon have spent billions to gain more access to TV viewing habits and behaviors worldwide.

So when your alarm clock goes off, get ready for the advertisements: have a bowl of Cheerios, make yourself a cup of Starbucks brand coffee, take your Flintstone’s multi-vitamin, and use Colgate toothpaste before you leave the house. Why? Because your electric meter says so.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Starbucks: A Jolt From Coffee; A Jolt For Your Phone; Thursday Review; June 12, 2014.

Are You Ready For TV Ads on Facebook?; Thursday Review; March 19, 2014.