by K.T. Weaver, SkyVision Solutions
In an article from December 31st, I wrote that ‘Smart’ Meters Generate a ‘Gold Mine of Data’ for Utilities and that they provide a ‘gateway’ to the home.
To better understand the full nature of this “data gold mining” and the motives behind it, I will highlight portions of a newly published paper, “The Neoliberal Politics of ‘Smart’: Electricity Consumption, Household Monitoring, and the Enterprise Form.” The authors are from Portland State University.
As we have previously observed, utility smart meters expose the consumer and society to tremendous threats and risks. To those who objectively study the issues, it is almost incomprehensible as to why our government officials continue to allow utility smart meter deployments. The latest paper, published this past November, offers additional insight for the underlying reasons of why smart meter deployments persist in spite of the dangers.
I highly recommend you read what follows or the actual published paper. It demonstrates how, in the interest of profit and the desires for governmental and corporate surveillance, we are increasingly subjected to intrusions far beyond that necessary to deliver the essential service of electricity. In my article, in quoting selected portions of the paper, I will occasionally include bold font to add emphasis.
Corporate Encroachment on the Household and Everyday Life
The paper begins by explaining how smart grid technology encroaches upon our everyday life:
“In this article, we wish to discuss the relationship between the expansion and deepening of corporate encroachment on the household and everyday life through the emerging energy ‘smart grid’. Every home is equipped with the rudiments of electrical infrastructure and commodities, ranging from the more modest forms of equipment, such as toasters and refrigerators, to the more extravagant, such as luxury hot tubs and full-scale entertainment complexes.”
“But most people would not imagine that, apart from the bill they receive from their local electric utility, their every flick of an electrical switch integrates their cyberselves as an informational force of (re)production in the corporate capitalist accumulation process.”
“Technology developments have broad applications and implications, but the smart energy grid that is being implemented across the United States and Canada, like the worldwide web, we argue, is being appropriated as part of a design to draw upon higher level data from dwellers (as surplus value) in the service of industrial profiteering and in the surveillance interests of industry and the state.”
“With digital integration of energy infrastructure and the use of smart metering, new and more sophisticated means arise for those in the surveillant perches for collecting and reading sensitive personal information on the individual within the household.”
Consumers Performing Unpaid “Virtual” Labor So Others Can Profit
Without consumer consent, the smart grid industry is being allowed to profit from the personal data created in the home for what amounts to “unpaid virtual labor.”
“[Consumers] perform immaterial and unpaid ‘virtual’ labour in the provision of personal data that enables the creation of value from such data.”
“Remote surveillance commodifies household energy activity data and incentivizes residents to choreograph their energy use patterns out of economic motivation and environmental consciousness. The manner in which such data are collected uses intrusive monitoring that permits unnoticed or unwanted surveillance of everyday activities to capture the ‘externalized labor’ of users’ energy consumption patterns.”
“Energy companies collect this data as a rent, which they then convert to profitable internal uses beyond the original system of electricity delivery or sell the data to third parties. Payment (wages) in exchange for this access to data in the form of reduced energy charges to the consumer is not guaranteed. Indeed, there is likely a net loss to the household user, as the principal forms of consumer savings requires the purchase of smart household utilities, smart ovens, smart toasters, smart refrigerators, and the like, while utility companies pass on the cost of smart meter installation to ratepayers.”
The paper concludes that granular smart meter data “will be utilized by data analytic companies to produce consumer segments based on energy-usage profiles with the purpose of maximizing profits for energy utility companies.”
Surveillance, Prosumption and “Dataveillance”
The paper introduces terms that may be unfamiliar to many consumers, such as prosumption (or prosumer) and dataveillance:
“Surveillance of information, what Roger Clarke (1988) calls ‘dataveillance’, is the ‘systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons’, and as such may be defined as personal or mass surveillance. This distinction [between personal and mass surveillance] breaks down in Internet surveillance because of the massive networks of communication and the forms of mass advertisements that are tailored and targeted to users based on personal data collected. Internet surveillance is therefore both personal and mass surveillance. This mirrors the situation in the case of energy consumption data collected by smart meters.”
“In the commercial sphere of the Internet, the user is both a consumer and contributor of data, the compilation of which is sold to advertisers and other interested third parties. Advertisers either purchase the data to develop their own marketing segments, or pay an Internet content source for access to marketing segments. Advertisers then use this data or access to segments for targeted promotion. The same individual browsing that consumes Internet content as a commodity also constitutes a kind of informal labour, inasmuch as it produces exchange value for advertisers — hence the ‘prosumer’.”
“The process of data collection via smart meters is analogous to prosumption [Internet-related] applications and the creation of targeted advertisements, but in this case, analytic products and management platforms that feed on user data, rather than advertisements, are at the heart of the accumulation process.”
“Surveillance and prosumption are indeed central to capital accumulation in smart meter deployment [and involves] the exploitation of labour (surplus value creation) through processes of coercion, alienation, and appropriation, enabled by digital technology and the harvesting of personal data.”
Informational Governance and Behavioral Control That Punishes the Consumer
In an attempt to explain some of the motivations behind smart meter deployments, the authors of the paper make observations on how smart meters are part of a plan to influence the behavior of consumers as a form of “informational governance.” However, what might be seen as good intentions by some is doomed to fail in the real world. Consumers are not necessarily the “rational actors” that the technocrats assume and, in any case, consumers are at a disadvantage for achieving any net benefits from smart meters when operating within a world dominated by elite groups whose primary motivation is financial profit.
“The promise of smart meters relies, in one part, on behavioural changes of users, such that demand management objectives are met to offset peak loads and eliminate the necessity of adding more electricity production through expensive power production facilities. … Utilities have pursued DSM [demand-side management] strategies largely because it allows them to defer investments in new sources of electricity generation, including renewables or other ‘clean’ energy sources. … In this sense, smart meter ‘success’ presupposes a rational market actor or a form of power/knowledge relations where users manage their lives as enterprises.”
“[S]tate indoctrination can be extended into the informational (self-)governance of home energy management through the shaping of discourse and standards of practice, among other ‘intellectual technologies’. … This informational mode of (self-)governance is reliant on the operation of governing through subjects.” [italics in original]
“Rose and Miller (2010) term this indirect governance as ‘government at a distance’ — the control of individuals ‘not through explicit forms of domination, but through rationalized techniques and devices which orient action to certain socially useful ends’.
[However, in] the context of uneven power relations, ‘socially useful ends’ often means in service to elite groups for the further accumulation of capital, entrenching and naturalizing capitalist modes of life and work.”
“The main benefits [of smart meter technology], … are not for the most part employed for the benefit of the consumer (except possibly through improved reliability of supply). The ability to better determine one’s energy use, receive price signals through dynamic pricing and other economic incentives are set up by digital smart meter technology to inspire energy consumers to use less energy (or at least use less at peak periods). Consumers may save money from reduced electricity usage during peak demand; however, the savings from DSM will not necessarily be passed down to them. Moreover, most people do not conform to the market definition of ‘rational economic actors’.”
“Thus surveillance of energy consumption habits, we argue, acts as a mode of disciplinary power that punishes, financially and socially.”
Note: The concept of informational governance “through rationalized techniques and devices” is similar to the notions of “behavioral economics” and “nudging” discussed in my recent article, ‘Smart’ Meters are ‘Guilt Meters’ and an Example of a ‘Fraudulent, Bogus Innovation’.
Smart Meter Surveillance Violates Rights Related to Privacy and Free Speech
As government has generally allowed and even promoted the deployment of utility smart meters for reasons largely related to “informational governance,” government has also enabled and sanctioned consumer surveillance and “dataveillance.” One of the worst repercussions of these actions is the loss of personal freedoms. The authors of the paper assert that rights related to both privacy and freedom of speech are “obliterated” through smart meter deployments.
“Not only does the ‘smartening’ of the grid entail greater consumption data collection for analytic capabilities and profit-making activities, it also enables deeper surveillance of home life and its everyday activities. This invokes concern about whether the anonymous observation of mundane (vacuum cleaning), personal (what time one sleeps), or even intimate activities (heating a waterbed) porously violates rights of privacy.”
“In most cases, a private corporation that records personal data about the household, such as landline telephone calling or electrical usage, would not fall under the purview of the U.S. Fourth Amendment or Section 8 of the Canadian charter of rights and Freedoms. However, if the state were involved, directly or indirectly, such as in the way that computer search engines record and share data on personal computer usage in conjunction with the federal government, it would be a different matter.”
“The consumer’s use value of electricity consumption is thus being transformed into exchange value, as well as creating new forms of social monitoring and control by agencies of government, and of violations of constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Section 8 of the Canadian charter of rights and Freedoms.”
“And given the enormous and egregious liberties that the National Security Agency has in fact taken in gathering data on citizen telephone, email, and website usage, there is little reason to doubt that federal authorities are already doing the same thing on a massive scale with regard to household electrical usage. For example, Google, which has provided data to the NSA on search engine usage, is itself, especially since the purchase of Nest, a supplier of home security devices.”
“Insofar as private companies can secure information on one’s electrical usage, such usage effectively becomes a form of communication, of unintended speech.”
“If corporate intrusion on household electrical usage obliterates the Fourth Amendment, it might also be construed as obliterating the First Amendment, inasmuch as the bill of rights not only guarantees the right to speak, but also, as the Supreme court has ruled, the (negative) right not to speak.”
“It is not merely the specific uses of electricity that one is entitled to keep private. Home electrical use is merely the consumptive practice of everyday life. What is more invasive about smart panoptic metering is the mode of networked regulation that a corporate entity, backed by a corporate state, seeks to impose upon the habits of the people — a future not only without privacy, but with radically reduced freedom of thought and action.”
Consumers Expected to Live as “Commodified” Data Subjects
With smart meters, consumers are reduced to “commodified” data subjects, under constant surveillance and existing to service the corporations and government. As mentioned above, consumers can look forward to a future “with radically reduced freedom of thought and action.”
“With the smart grid, electrical and human energy are merged and converted into commodified units of data with which utilities — and potentially the state — actualize a deeper opening and intrusion of households toward the instrumental interests of economic, social, cultural, and increasingly political control. These acts of intervention are undertaken in the name of efficiency, environmental sustainability, and household cost savings.”
“The smart grid fuels an exploitative and more alienating relationship in the realm of social reproduction wherein value is created in the quotidian [daily] use of energy and extracted in the accumulation of data and subsequent analysis that is not only ‘free’, but also gained through a service consumers are charged for, electricity.”
“This disciplining, prosumer, panoptic, hegemonic [state dictated] relationship is made possible by digital technology transformations of the grid and its surveillant capacities of sensing and metering, essentially creating a commodity from everyday life activities of energy consumption.”
“In the long term, smart metering, and the innovations that are likely to be built upon it, with ever-greater capacities to examine behavioural microdata, represents an assault upon individual, and in its collectivity, social, cultural, and political identity.”
Final Remarks by SkyVision Solutions
So what do you think? Are you interested in becoming a “commodity” for the utility companies to profit from your personal data collected without your consent? Are you interested in your every movement in the home being surveilled by “smart” meters? Are you interested in being manipulated through “informational governance”? Are you interested in losing money and freedom? I should hope not.
The highlighted paper demonstrates how consumers will not benefit from smart meter deployments. They are expected to pay for the meters (through higher rates or taxes) and then act as a continuing data mining revenue stream for the corporations and possibly government as their personal freedoms are lost. In addition, consumers are expected to buy all sorts of new “smart” appliances to connect to the “smart” grid, providing more profit to the corporations. In the end, there is advertised by the elite groups in power that there is some sort of “energy savings” at the end of the rainbow. However, as the authors of the paper point out:
“The data gathered by virtue of identity appropriation and recoding can also be sold to and used by data firms for granular and targeted marketing and advertising and, ultimately, lead to expanded, not reduced, energy use, defying claims that the smart grid is a positive response to the global warming crisis.”
Also recall that the authors indicated that smart meters will “punish” consumers, both financially and socially.
I recently filed comments with the New York Public Service Commission in opposition to broad-based deployment of utility smart meters. In those comments, I summarized that smart meter proponents “in the pursuit of their objectives fully disregard the risks and threats of smart meter technology which we have shown to be:
- The financial burden imposed by smart meters where most consumers will suffer a ‘net loss’.
- Privacy invasions due to granular collection of energy usage data which represents a ‘gold mine’ to others.
- Potential health risks and actual adverse health effects caused by the additional electrosmog created by the smart meters and their associated infrastructure.
- The increased risk of household fires due to smart meter safety issues and ‘catastrophic failures’ that are expected with smart meters as opposed to traditional usage meters.
- Societal implications of smart grid and smart meter cybersecurity threats which can result in catastrophic events affecting widespread areas of the electric grid.”
Continued investment in the currently available smart meter technology cannot be justified. The risks are too great and the ever-increasing violations of our fundamental rights are unacceptable. Evidently, however, we still need additional public awareness of the threats so that more people realize what is happening and that more effective opposition can be mounted. Please help spread the word to others.
Source Material for this Article
“The Neoliberal Politics of ‘Smart’: Electricity Consumption, Household Monitoring, and the Enterprise Form,” by Anthony M. Levenda, Dillon Mahmoudi, Gerald Sussman, all from Portland State University; Canadian Journal of Communication, volume 40 (4), November 2015. Complete article available for review at: http://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/usp_fac/116/
Anthony M. Levenda is a Doctoral candidate in urban Studies at the Toulan School of urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University. Dillon Mahmoudi is a Doctoral candidate in urban Studies at the Toulan School of urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University. Gerald Sussman is a Joint Professor in Urban Studies at the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning and International Studies, Portland State University.