Many of us have thought that Big Brother might arrive in our homes through TV sets, but what if we had the wrong appliance? What if Big Brother is really coming to control your refrigerator and oven and other very mundane appliances?
In Great Britain, the National Grid — the group that runs the power grid — has proposed that all appliances be required to have special sensors that give the power operators control to shut appliances down temporarily if they need to manage shortages of electricity. (I don’t like to link to RT.com, because it’s a propaganda organ of the Russian government, but this story appears legitimate.) The plan is also backed by power operators across the European Union, who want it adopted all over the continent.
Here in the United States, some power companies are adopting what they call “smart meters.” Who could oppose a “smart” meter? It sounds great, doesn’t it? For a power company, smart meters provide obvious benefits. They can monitor your power usage remotely, so the company no longer has to send someone to your house to read the meter. Just as important to the company, though, these meters give a power utility the ability to shut off your power remotely and “manage” your usage in other ways.
If the utility is having trouble supplying enough power, it can choose to cut back on your usage during peak periods. In other words, you’re giving a company (or a municipal utility) the right to shut your power off when it’s convenient for them.
In theory, it sounds good. In practice, it might even work as advertised for the time being. In some places, companies are offering financial incentives for them to have the right to cut your power off at certain peak times. It’s the implications for the future that scare me.
(Let me also mention that some people have worries about health problems because smart meters send their data back using radio waves. Some are even being arrested trying to block the installation of the meters, for both safety and privacy reasons. I think the safety issue is nonsense and I don’t take it seriously. The atmosphere is full of radio waves and they don’t hurt us. This is no different. It’s just like the people who were scared of WiFi signals and claimed they harmed health, too.)
A connected world — an “Internet of things” — is the wave of the future. Devices are going to have sensors and IP addresses and they’re going to talk to each other. I see that as almost inevitable. What I don’t like is that we aren’t going to be in control of our own devices. Companies and governments are going to have the technical capability to remotely control major aspects of our daily lives.
Even if the current uses of the technology are fairly benign, are you comfortable giving government the power to control what you’re using and the information about what devices you’re powering? What if you’re using power to grow plants indoors? Is that going to be enough to trigger a drug raid? (Buying indoor growing equipment is already enough to justify such a raid.)
I like technology and I like being connected, but I like to have control over my own devices. Maybe it’s already too late to stop this. I honestly don’t know. But I do know that a wave of major change is coming — and most people aren’t even going to know it’s coming until it’s too late to stop it.
I’m not happy about it, but I have no idea how to deal with this one.