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EDITORIAL: Peepholes into private lives

When do ‘smart devices’ become not so smart?

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Pity the blind pursuers of intelligence. Smart devices like smartphones, smart cars and smart meters come with sensors that gather useful information. The latest phones have built-in fitness apps that track calories consumed and steps taken to do something about it.

Some cars can put themselves into the tightest of parking spaces, no driver participation required. High-tech thermostats adjust temperature to suit daily activities.

Like the neighborhood blabbermouth, however, such devices don't know the meaning of discretion. When the government seizes the data that smart gizmos collect, the consumer loses control of choice. There's nothing smart about that.

In the name of a "sustainable" environment, electric-utility companies are installing smart meters by the millions in houses throughout the country to measure power usage, replacing the old-fashioned meters that require a meter man to call and take note of consumption.

The new units transmit data remotely in microwave bursts to control centers, where it's sliced and diced and made accessible online so customers can track their energy efficiency and, presumably, save money. What's not to like?

But the two-way devices give utilities the ability to reach an invisible hand into houses to dial down the flow of the juice when demand approaches peak capacity. This further enables the government to decide whether some customers are using "too much" and are contributing to "global warming."

Such controls can be used to enforce compliance with "green" initiatives. The government can pull the plug on anyone who refuses to play along.

The public doesn't like the idea, and in some areas of the country, there's the faint rumble of revolt. In Fairfax, Calif., the town council earlier this month approved a three-year moratorium on smart meters, surpassing a one-year moratorium on the units imposed earlier this month by surrounding Marin County, which banned them in 2011.

"Wireless smart meters are vulnerable to hacking and intrusion," the Fairfax ordinance observes, "and will make our electrical grid more susceptible to terrorist attack and disruption ... wireless smart meters act as data-collection devices, which make previously private activities inside our homes subject to unauthorized official and criminal surveillance."

Resistance to the powers-that-be carries a cost. The California Public Utilities Commission has authorized Pacific Gas and Electric to charge customers who opt out a $75 "administration fee" and an extra $10 a month.

The Illinois Commerce Commission followed California in ruling last week that utility customers who refuse to allow Commonwealth Edison to install smart meters will be charged an extra $21.53 per month to cover the wages of human meter readers.

The commission says the smart units will be installed in all houses and apartments by 2022, whether customers want them or not. So much for choice.

The "location features" on smartphones that pinpoint the nearest Starbucks is the technology that enables the National Security Agency to watch where everyone is at any given moment, no warrant needed. Even late-model automobiles talk out of school.

"Event data recorders" currently installed in 96 percent of the cars and trucks sold in the United States store information about location, speed, brake usage and a dozen other metrics. The Department of Transportation is working on regulations making the black-box spies even more intrusive.

Such progress comes with a price. Smart devices collect and dispense useful information, but the price is providing others, including the government, a peephole into the privacy of nearly everyone.

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