Smart Meter Privacy Risks ‘Likely to Provoke Opposition,’ Reveals Latest Research Study

by K.T. Weaver, SkyVision Solutions

Invasion of Privacy with SM and LogoMy interest in the smart meter controversy started over the aspect of privacy invasions.  Just last year I posted a comprehensive report on how smart meters invade individual and behavioral privacy.

This past July, the Judge for a Naperville, Illinois, smart meter lawsuit effectively acknowledged that smart meters invade privacy, but he ruled that consumers were “deemed to have consented” to these privacy invasions “through their [continued] usage of electricity services” subsequent to the smart meters being installed.  To me this was an inexplicable ruling since most if not all members of the lawsuit had explicitly denied consent to the utility for smart meter installations, some were arrested by the police for refusing installation, and the lawsuit itself should have fully demonstrated to the Judge that “consent” had not been granted.

In any case, part of the rationale on whether privacy invasions are deemed as “unreasonable” from a legal perspective and in a court of law is whether a specific individual’s expectation for privacy in the home, viewed objectively, should be recognized as reasonable and justifiable by society.

Recent sociological research confirms that increased privacy risks created by utility smart meters are likely to provoke opposition to the devices (if consumers become aware of the associated risks).  This evidence supports the conclusion that societal norms are still in place that would lead one to conclude that smart meter privacy invasions are unacceptable and unreasonable.

In this article I will highlight the results of a recent published study, entitled, “Privacy, technology, and norms: The case of Smart Meters.”  I purchased this copyrighted published article and will selectively quote several sections of the study in the public’s interest for non-commercial purposes.

Do you suppose that members of smart grid industry would read the referenced published study and educate the public on the contents?  No.  They won’t even acknowledge any privacy risks related to smart meters.  At most, some utilities will acknowledge that a “small segment” of consumers have “privacy concerns” over smart meters but will never admit to the obvious serious risks that actually exist.

So please further raise your awareness on smart meter privacy risks; once you do, the research indicates you will be opposed to this invasive technology.

From the Abstract of “Privacy, Technology, and Norms: The Case of Smart Meters,”

“Norms shift and emerge in response to technological innovation.  One such innovation is Smart Meters – components of Smart Grid energy systems capable of minute-to-minute transmission of consumer electricity use information.  We integrate theory from sociological research on social norms and privacy to examine how privacy threats affect the demand for and expectations of norms that emerge in response to new technologies, using Smart Meters as a test case.”

[Commentary:  The published article, although providing good results, starts out by accepting a false narrative that smart meters are a “technological innovation” that may offer some benefits.  This premise is refuted by my article of December 1st that ‘Smart’ Meters are ‘Guilt Meters’ and an Example of a ‘Fraudulent, Bogus Innovation’.]

Here are selected quotations from the published study and where I provide emphasis with bold font in some instances:

“Technological innovation has created unprecedented potential for invasions into individuals’ privacy (Culnan and Bies, 2003).  While voices in popular media argue that privacy is dead (e.g., Hill, 2010), scholars find that Americans are very concerned about privacy and engage in strategic actions to try to protect it (e.g., boyd and Marwick, 2011).  Privacy is thought to create boundaries that are essential for structuring social interactions (Nippert-Eng, 2010).  And many believe that social life is not possible (or enjoyable) without some level of privacy – privacy is necessary for human flourishing (see, e.g., Cohen, 2000; Gandy, 2007).”

“In this paper, we draw on theory and insights from the norms and privacy literatures to explain norms that arise in response to emerging technologies, using Smart Meters as a test case. … Smart Meters transmit information about consumer electricity use to utility companies at short intervals of 15 minutes or less.  In the aggregate, this information may help utility companies to increase the efficiency and reliability of the grid (Quinn, 2009).  But detailed information about household electricity consumption generated by Smart Meters can also be used to estimate the composition and behavior of individual households (Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, 2010). … As a result, utility companies across the country are gaining unprecedented access to information about customers as well as the technical ability to intervene in residents’ homes.”

“Drawing on the privacy literature, we identify potential threats to individual privacy that may be created by smart technology.  Building on the research on norm emergence, we predict that these threats will produce a demand for norms as well as norm expectations opposing Smart Meters, and that this effect is conditional.  We test our hypotheses using a series of vignette experiments that examine how demand for and expectations of norms shift in response to varying levels of privacy intrusion and contributions of the technology to the shared goals of the actors involved.”

Our results suggest that the increased risks to privacy created by Smart Meters are likely to provoke opposition, that these effects persist across age groups and other demographic characteristics, and that they are at least partially conditional.  These findings contribute to understanding of technology and norm emergence and have practical implications for addressing consumer privacy concerns.”

Norms are rules or expectations about behavior that are socially enforced (Horne, 2001). … Norm theorists argue that norms emerge in response to behavioral externalities (e.g., Coleman, 1990; Demsetz, 1967; Heckathorn, 1989). … The more harmful the behavior the more negatively it will be viewed and the stronger the demand for norms to control it.  In addition, we suggest that the harm caused by a behavior also affects individuals’ expectations of how others are likely to react to the behavior.”

[R]esearch would suggest that if people believe that the installation of Smart Meters will have negative consequences for themselves and other community members, they will oppose installation of Smart Meters.  Similarly, they will expect others to also oppose it.”

“A different body of research focusing specifically on privacy provides insights that are relevant for the Smart Meter context.  This literature identifies specific characteristics of information that may create costs for individuals and thus gives content to the abstract costs identified by norms theorists.  

Here we focus on four of these potential costs and assess how they are likely to affect demand for and expectations of norms.  These costs include data collection, data aggregation and analysis, information dissemination, and intervention.”

“Privacy researchers again provide useful insights.  They suggest that norms will vary with the goals of the parties in the relationship (Nissenbaum, 2010).  For example, a behavior such as a pat-down in an airport may be accepted when it furthers a collective goal (such as passenger security), but rejected when it is viewed as irrelevant to that goal.”

“In the context of Smart Meters, this insight draws attention to what households expect and want from their relationship with the utility company.  Presumably, they want a reliable supply of electricity and want to be billed fairly.  This desire is consistent with the historical utility-household relationship in which households use power, and utility companies track usage and bill accordingly.”

“But, Smart Meters and smart technologies now enable a new kind of relationship that is not consistent with this historical experience.  Most notably, smart technology enables communication with smart appliances in a home.  This means that utility companies can potentially change the settings of appliances in the home remotely – something that has not been technologically feasible in the past. …  Thus the Smart Grid shifts households from being simply consumers who are billed for a product, to being players in the energy system – a very different kind of relationship than people are used to.”

The published study was designed to test a number of hypotheses about the use of utility smart meters and their effects on consumers.  For example, one hypothesis to be tested was as follows:

“The ability to analyze data to produce substantial information about a household will increase demand for and expectations of norms against the meters.”

To test these hypotheses as part of the study, hundreds of participants were recruited from a crowdsourcing website.  Participants were asked to read a number of short written descriptions or vignettes which subjected them to an experimental condition describing smart meter usage in their homes.  For example, in one vignette, “participants were told that a utility was installing a new kind of electricity meter in homes in their neighborhood.  These new meters were designed to record electricity use in each home and send the information to the utility company – either every five minutes or once a month.  This vignette also told participants that the utility could use this information to estimate either limited or more extensive characteristics of the household.”

Participants were then asked a number of questions designed to “measure their demand for norms and expectations of norms among their friends.  Questions about how willing they would be to have the meter in their home and how good or bad they thought the meters would be for society capture individual demand for norms.”

The study results and conclusions include:

Our results show that the privacy threats that are potentially created by Smart Meters are likely to produce demand for and expectations of anti-technology norms.  Absent any other information, frequent collection of data regarding household electricity use does not affect demand for or expectations of norms.  But if power use information can be analyzed to reveal details about home life, if that information can be sold to third parties, or if utility companies can remotely control appliances within the home, then demand for and expectations of anti-technology norms increase.”

“Future research should compare reactions to Smart Meters to reactions to other information technologies.  Unlike social media technologies or shopping cards, consumers need electricity and must purchase it under monopolistic conditions.  They cannot realistically refuse to purchase electricity.  And opting out of Smart Meter programs is possible, but expensive, as utilities create additional costs for doing so.  Thus we might expect even greater negative reaction to Smart Meters than we would to potential privacy invasions that individuals are relatively better positioned to avoid.”

As a practical matter, our results suggest that as consumers become more informed about the potential uses of Smart Meter data for analysis and control, negative reactions are likely to increase.”

“Older participants expressed more demand for and expectations of norms against Smart Meters.  But, age did not interact with any of the experimental conditions.  This lack of an interaction effect shows that older adults and younger adults were affected by threats to privacy in the same way.  We interpret these findings as suggesting that while older people may be more suspicious of new technology than younger people, people of all ages are equally concerned about privacy.”

“Thus our results suggest that policy makers and utility companies need to be aware of consumer concerns with privacy threats that are created by Smart Grid technologies and develop strategies for addressing those concerns.”

In summary, the study reveals that if consumers are simply aware that the utility is collecting granular data, public backlash and opposition is not evident (or statistically significant).  Consumers do not automatically understand what can be done with the data.  Additionally, the utility companies actually make misleading statements to (mis)inform the public that nothing of significance can be determined from utility usage data, whether it was collected monthly or every 15 minutes.

On the other hand, the study results show that once consumers become aware that the smart meter data can be analyzed to reveal “details about home life,” then norms develop which support opposition to the invasive technology.  Furthermore, once the technology is recognized as a possible intervention into their private lives or that data could be sold to third parties, opposition further increases.

My overall perspective of where we are in this “fight” for privacy was recently expressed by one of the foremost privacy experts in the world and deals with the issue of awareness and that we are really just at the beginning of this “fight.”

From Alessandro Acquisti:

“I do believe that one of the defining fights of our times will be the fight for the control over personal information, the fight over whether big data will become a force for freedom, rather than a force which will hiddenly manipulate us.  Right now, many of us do not even know that the fight is going on, but it is, whether you like it or not.  …  I will tell you that the tools for the fight are here [pointing to his head/ brain], the awareness of what is going on, and in your hands, just a few clicks away.” (video of quote below)

You now have a more full awareness of what is going on; it is now up to you to make efforts in the “fight” to oppose the invasive technology of smart meters.  If you needed any further reason to justify opposition to them, the latest published study provides ample rationale that smart meter privacy invasions are unacceptable and unreasonable from not only a personal perspective but from a societal perspective as well.

Source Material for this Article

“Privacy, Technology, and Norms: The Case of Smart Meters,” by Christine Horne, et.al., Social Science Research; 51 (2015) 64–76; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2014.12.003

“What will a future without secrets look like,” by Alessandro Acquisti, TED, June 2013, available at http://www.ted.com/talks/alessandro_acquisti_why_privacy_matters

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Although the major portions of this article are comprised of selected quotations of a copyrighted document, SkyVision Solutions represents that the manner in which the materials were rearranged, remixed, or otherwise altered in sequence qualifies this article as a “derivative work” under 17 U.S.C. 103.  SkyVision Solutions does not imply any exclusive right to the preexisting material.

About SkyVision Solutions

Raising public awareness and finding solutions for smart grid issues related to invasions of privacy, data security, cyber threats, health and societal impacts, as well as hazards related to radiofrequency (RF) radiation emissions from all wireless devices, including smart meters.
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