Will the smart grid become law enforcement's new best friend?

The Columbus Dispatch has a story today about how police in central Ohio and other parts of the state have been subpoenaing the energy-use records of people suspected of indoor marijuana growing operations.

Marijuana plants apparently need a lot of sunshine to grow. So, anyone attempting to cultivate weed inside their homes typically end up having to use plenty of high-wattage light bulbs. One result: the energy consumption of such homes tends to be between three and five times higher than comparably-sized homes in the same area.

So, by subpoenaing the utility records of suspected growers, police apparently can quickly figure out if they have enough probable cause for further investigation.

It's the sort of news that's likely to make privacy advocates squirm, at a time when utilities around the country are deploying smart grid technologies.

A smart grid is basically a system in which digital technology is used to control electric power transmission, distribution and delivery. It utilizes smart-metering technology to collect tons of detailed real-time energy consumption data from homes and to transmit it back in real-time to power distributors

The technology is designed to let power companies better manage energy consumption and demand. It is also designed to help consumers gain better visibility into their energy consumption habits so they can weed out costly energy usage habits. Smart-metering technologies, when fully deployed, will be able to capture energy-use related information from individual appliances inside a home.

In a report released last year, the U.S. Department of Energy warned how the energy management data captured by smart-metering systems could provide a pretty detailed profile of the behavior and activities of a particular household. The report called for polices that would restrict information sharing between utility companies and data aggregators.

Even if such policies were to be passed, law enforcement authorities would still, in all likelihood, have access to the data when pursuing investigations. Though utilities may not want to share the data, they could be forced to, by a subpoena.

In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that state police had not acted improperly in subpoenaing the utility records of a man who had been convicted of growing marijuana in his home. In its ruling, the court noted that there could be no reasonable expectation of privacy in utility records. Several other states, including California, Washington and Colorado have said the same thing.

In its ruling, the N.J court noted that utility bills reveal only the "total amount of electricity" a person is using in his home over a specific period.  "It does not divulge personal details - whether or when the person is watching television, talking on the telephone, or using any particular appliance," the court had ruled.

Privacy advocates will argue that a smart grid will enable precisely that visibility.  And they'll have a point.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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