Can CMP tell what you’re watching on TV?

Central Maine Power says no. It says the digital “smart” meters it has installed in most homes, which record power consumption every 15 minutes, aren’t even capable of capturing that kind of information.

But a 2010 study in Germany at the Münster University of Applied Sciences found that meters set up to record electricity consumption every two seconds can distinguish what appliances are running and even identify programs, based on a digital TV’s lighting display.

This apparent capability raises questions about privacy and security, and what utilities can do with data, in the age of smart electric meters.

CMP notes that customer privacy rules set out by the Maine Public Utilities Commission forbid utilities from disclosing or selling customer information, except for debt collection, credit reporting and law enforcement.

And while smart meters may seem like a new and insidious intrusion by Big Data, consumers already are giving up tons of information to other electronic portals. Anyone who subscribes to Netflix, which streams video to millions of homes, has his viewing habits analyzed and fed into recommendation algorithms. People who perform an Internet search have their results captured and used for marketing. Those with a cellphone or a highway toll pass have their location information tracked by satellite.

But the drought in California is showing that smart meters also can be used to track consumption in a way that both helps and penalizes customers.

In Long Beach, California, a McDonalds restaurant was fined $800 for violating water use policies. The local water utility installed a smart water meter that recorded usage every five minutes, following complaints about broken irrigation lines and malfunctioning sprinklers.

“Using smart meter technology, we are able to identify water violations in a quick, easy and cost-effective manner,” Kevin Wattier, general manager at the Long Beach Water Department told the Long Beach Post.


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