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Some worry smart meters could be used to collect information on residents

Big Brother is watching you — through your smart meter?

One complaint about the technology, as electric and gas utilities roll it out here and across the country, is that it offers another way for government agencies — or hackers — to snoop on us. The American Civil Liberties Union notes that at least some utilities have turned over customer data after legal demands.

San Diego Gas & Electric, required by California regulators to report annually on privacy issues, said it disclosed 3,056 customers' records last year, some of which could have included "energy usage data of varying granularities."

The company said those disclosures were related to the "legal process" but did not explain which agencies requested the information. A warrant or other court order is required in that state.

The Congressional Research Service said in a 2012 report that law enforcement agencies have relied on data from old-style meters in investigations, including one into a suspected marijuana-growing operation. The difference with smart meters is their ability to track use by the hour — or even smaller increments — rather than by the month.

"If law enforcement officers obtained near-real time data on a consumer's electricity usage from the utility company, their ability to monitor household activities would be amplified significantly," the Congressional Research Service said. "For example, by observing when occupants use the most electricity, it may be possible to discern their daily schedules."

Other privacy-related concerns raised include the potential for hacking and for utilities to assume control of customers' appliances.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which began installing the devices in 2012 and hopes to be largely finished next spring, said it can't turn off your dishwasher through your smart meter. It might be possible down the road for customers to authorize a utility to manage their appliances — similar to the air-conditioning and heating programs BGE consumers can sign up for now — but "none of this is actually in the works," said Michael Butts, director of BGE's smart grid.

"This is nothing BGE or any utility could do arbitrarily," he said.

BGE said it protects against hacking internally and also hires companies to try to hack its system and find vulnerabilities.

Information the meters send over the airwaves does not include customer names and addresses or energy data more detailed than total use, generally on an hourly basis, BGE said. (BGE collects information in 15-minute intervals for "a small sample of customers," said spokeswoman Rhea Lewis Marshall.)

So what about law enforcement? BGE's privacy policy specifies that it may in some instances "be required to disclose individual data pursuant to regulation or law."

"I have not heard of such a request being made," Marshall said by email.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

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