Is There Anybody Home?
Toronto has a housing problem. Its real estate market is overvalued, and Toronto tops the list of cities at risk of a housing bubble according to the UBS, a Swiss global financial services company. In April 2017, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne confirmed that the province intends to give Toronto the ability to levy additional property taxes on vacant homes to slow the rise of home prices and to put more properties on the sales and rental markets.
Toronto Mayor John Tory later stated that the city would “mine” water and electricity data from residential smart meters to search for these vacant homes as part of a report on these new taxes.
Dr. Ann Cavoukian, a three-term Ontario privacy commissioner, told the Toronto Sun the several ways in which this plan is inappropriate. Firstly, private property is just that: private. And that includes the residents’ private information. Secondly, the province doesn’t have the authority to perform bulk surveillance of residents without their knowledge or consent. Thirdly, water and electricity consumption information can be used only to determine the bill, and using it to identify empty homes, or even to count the number of empty homes, is unacceptable.
Several months later, city officials announced that privacy legislation prevents the use of water and electricity data to identify vacant properties for tax enforcement.
A New Backdoor for Your Home
Many people seem to be under the impression that smart meters don’t know how you’re using the power or what you are doing in your home. However, many smart meters measure energy usage about every 15 minutes, which provides enough information to see when people go to bed, get up in the morning, and leave home. Furthermore, researchers in Germany have eavesdropped on and analyzed electricity usage data from smart meters that measure every 2 seconds to identify the consumption profiles of refrigerators, kettles, hot water heaters, microwaves, washing machines, ovens, and other household appliances. They are even able to identify the TV and determine which TV programs, physical media, or even downloaded videos the consumer is watching through pattern matching based on light and dark scenes. One of the researchers told CNET that the data is not signed or encrypted, so anyone with access to the home network has access to this data.
Still, most people aren’t worried about hackers finding out that they watch Seinfeld reruns or leave for work at 8 o’clock. Would they feel the same way if they knew that advertisers and other corporations could access the same information?
The Guardian found evidence of a company attempting to monetize such data from smart meters. An online video from Onzo, a British analytics company, described how the company takes energy consumption data, analyzes it, and then builds a highly personalized profile for each utility customer. The data is then monetized by providing a direct link to third-party organizations based on the customer’s identified behavioral, attitudinal, and lifestyle characteristics, and even the appliances seen used in the home. The video was soon taken down.
Even after learning of all of these privacy implications, consumers have few choices. For example, consumers in Toronto can’t opt out of the smart meter program, and consumers in the neighboring province of Quebec have to pay a $15 refusal fee and a $5 monthly metering surcharge to opt out.
Also published on Medium.