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Privacy and the surrender to Big Brother

06 April 2013, 09:37

Personal privacy is continually being eroded as more and more technological “cattle bells” are being hung around the necks of ordinary people. In addition to traceable cell-phones, car tracking devices and RFID chips in everything from our store purchases to our pets and soon ourselves, we are being leered at from on high anything from satellites through traffic cameras to ATM cams. And these are only the cameras we know of.

Technologies exist to activate the microphones and cameras on cell phones, tablets and even laptop or desktop computers in order to eavesdrop on us. [1]

With the e-Toll system in place in Gauteng, it is already impossible to travel anywhere on a highway without a gantry camera seeking out your registration number and recording in a database where you are and at what time you have been there.

This not only is a blatant intrusion of privacy; but can be further used to issue speeding tickets by averaging times travelled between toll gantries. Not only will you give up the right to travel in relative anonymity and be charged for it; but should your foot become a bit heavy; you will also be fined on top of that.

Johannesburg’s City Power has announced that they are in the process of implementing smart meter technology to monitor and charge for electricity usage. No mention was made of any opt-out policy for people not wishing to have “Smart Meters” installed. This might seem like an innocuous enough technology to report on a household’s use of electricity. After all, how could it possibly be so different from the analogue meters currently in operation; except for the fact that they transmit the usage data and can be read remotely? Convenient for whosoever issues the bills, isn’t it? But, what do you get in return? Well, in short, nothing! As a matter of fact you have everything to loose.

City power will argue for convenience and how these meters can be programmed for both pre- and post-paid electricity delivery. With existing technology, pre-paid electricity can be delivered if so desired and without the need for a smart-meter.

In order to put things into perspective, we have to first examine the capabilities of these smart meters.

1) WAN (Wide Area Network) Radio transmission of readings.

This will be done similarly to cell phone data exchange. The transmission includes; but is not limited to the overall electricity consumption.  The capability of the meter to receive data, also includes; but is not limited to, the remote shutoff of electricity supply to your dwelling.

2)      LAN (Local Area Network) / HAN (Home Area Network) Interaction with “Smart” devices.

This is of particular concern, because (very near) future, some existing and soon all devices will report their usage to the smart meter and may even be subject to remote de-activation at the discretion of the electricity provider.

Let us walk through a scenario:

You have your “smart” electricity meter installed and the electricity provider even incentivizes you with a off-peak power usage discount. But…

It is 09:00 on a Friday morning and you are at home (sick leave, or personal holiday if you wish). You switch on your brand new kettle for a lovely cupper. The kettle reports its activity to your electricity supplier. Their computer does the following:

1)      It is 09:00, peak time Add 10% charge to usage.

2)      Oh, but a kettle reports that it is working and it is a high consumption device: Has this household used a certain amount of electricity this month?

a.       Yes

                                                                          i.      Remotely switch kettle off (Bam – no cupper!)

b.      No

                                                                          i.      Charge excessive rate for use of kettle during peak hours.

A more unlikely, but not impossible scenario might be:

You are a new parent and lovingly switch on your baby monitor to protect your bundle of joy. Your baby monitor is a Smart device and reports its activity to the smart meter though the Home Area Network. This smart device also has the capability to transmit its audio and video streams through this network. Suddenly someone more sinister than you would ever believe has eyes and ears inside your house and you are paying for the “privilege”.

Remember; the Smart meter is a programmable device (computer) with access to your devices. It can be programmed to spy on you in a myriad of ways and once in; taxes of various kinds might be levied on for example the use of “luxury” appliances etc. The possibilities of making you pay is legion.

In addition; the smart meter is wireless and will bath you in gentle radio waves 24 hours a day. It is reported that the radiation levels are safe [2]; but remember that electromagnetic radiation is not isolated to one device. Wi-Fi, Cell-Phones, radio and television stations and wireless home telephones already fry our brains. Do we really need another brain scrambling transmitter at our doorstep.  Even if it’s only a mere 40 mW/m^2, it is 40 mW/m^2 we should not want.



[1] http://www.techdirt.com/blog/wireless/articles/20110417/21485513927/smartphone-apps-quietly-using-phone-microphones-cameras-to-gather-data.shtml

http://news.cnet.com/2100-1029-6140191.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/12/121212-smart-meter-privacy/

[2] http://www.emfs.info/Sources+of+EMFs/meters/smart/

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