Your Outlet Knows: How Smart Meters Can Reveal Behavior at Home, What We Watch on TV

Photographer: M. Spencer Green/AP Photo

A senior energy technician for Commonwealth Edison holds a standard electricity meter, left, and a new "smart" meter in North Riverside, Ill. on Sept. 6, 2013. Close

A senior energy technician for Commonwealth Edison holds a standard electricity meter,... Read More

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Photographer: M. Spencer Green/AP Photo

A senior energy technician for Commonwealth Edison holds a standard electricity meter, left, and a new "smart" meter in North Riverside, Ill. on Sept. 6, 2013.

Smart meters may be getting too smart for our own good.

As businesses look for new ways to gain insight into consumers, utility meters that wirelessly transmit energy-usage data are increasingly drawing attention because of what they can reveal about our behavior at home, such as when and how often we use certain appliances.

Last month, a unit of WPP, the world’s biggest advertising agency, announced it was teaming up with London-based software company Onzo to study ways to collect smart-meter data on household energy use. Onzo CEO Joel Hagan told Bloomberg News that the information has the potential to “open the door of the home.”

But unlocking the front door is just the beginning. The next stop for big data could be on the sofa next to us as we watch TV. Information flowing through smart meters can be mined to determine users' viewing habits -- not just that people are watching TV, but which programs they're watching, down to individual scenes at specific times, according to a little-known study by the University of Applied Sciences in Steinfurt, Germany.

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The research, which was published in 2012, measured how much power it takes to display certain programs on a television screen. Looking at seven movies and two television shows on five different brands of TV sets, the researchers found that each program had a unique power signature based on how much electric current was needed to show the images on the screen. Among the programs used for the tests was "Star Trek."

Once the programs' signatures were identified, the researchers found they could then match that information with data coming out of a smart meter. That meant a power company or other entity could mine this data to determine what a household was watching. The test was comprehensive enough to show the technique is broadly applicable and that there is an urgent need for stronger protections for smart-meter data, the researchers said.

As smart meters roll out around the world, the new technology has been met with anxiety and, at times, protests over security and privacy concerns. Last month, a protester was injured during an altercation with a water-utility employee at a demonstration in Ireland, and citizens' groups in Australia, the U.S. and Canada have mounted campaigns against the installation of smart meters.

By harvesting smart-meter data, companies can identify the brands of appliances people are using and create detailed marketing profiles, such as which homes have children and which have laborious mealtime preparation routines, said Ulrich Greveler, a researcher on the TV project.

"This is definitely interesting data for advertising agencies but also a huge invasion of consumer privacy," Greveler wrote in an e-mail.

Utilities, however, have touted the potential of smart meters to lower energy bills, reduce energy consumption and prevent blackouts. One utility uses data gleaned from smart meters to alert customers in Delaware and Maryland to spikes in demand and offer discounts for immediately reducing consumption.

Smart meters "enable two-way power and information flows between the utility and the consumer" and the data they provide "improve the efficiency and reliability of the electric system," said Lisa Wood, executive director of the Institute for Electric Innovation, part of The Edison Foundation, an organization focused on the electric industry, in a report on the subject.

This commercial-privacy trade-off isn't new. In exchange for getting to use a search engine such as Google for free, Web surfers pay by surrendering personal information that is used to target ads. By using in-car transponders to electronically pay bridge tolls, motorists speed their commute but submit to having their routes tracked.

Smart meters are just the latest example of the compromise consumers may face. Even amid the technology's potential cost savings to us, there's still no free lunch. Especially if you're cooking it in that Internet-connected microwave.

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