As smart meters proliferate across the country, concerns are bubbling up that their transmissions could affect Americans’ health or privacy. The Maine Public Utilities Commission will actually be holding hearings to hash out the matter on October 30 and 31.
But the case for privacy fears, while real, is based on mixed circumstances and rapidly changing policies. The health fears revolve around the supposed physical effects the radiofrequency radiation (RFR) — a fancy name for the signals released by everything from wireless routers to cell phones — put out by smart meters could have on the human body. The evidence for this second concern is essentially nonexistent.
Ionizing radiation, like what’s used by x-ray machines or caused by nuclear fallout, can actually tear electrons out of our body’s atoms. That causes radiation sickness and alters our chemical make-up, which can lead to cancer. Non-ionizing radiation from common electronics won’t do that, and studies of links between cancer rates and cell phone use found either no linkage, or in rare instances a linkage that wasn’t replicable by further research. But if it comes in short enough wavelengths and high enough frequencies, RFR can heat biological tissue — think of a microwave. It’s just that the RFR from smart meters is neither ionizing nor high frequency and short wavelength. As it stands, your average smart meter emits less RFR than a cell phone, and is well below the regulatory limit set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
A second issue is what’s called electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). This a supposed reaction to RFR, ionizing or not, that results in allergy-like symptoms including nausea, rashes, irregular heartbeat, weakness, chest pains, etc. A very, very small portion of the population appears to be affected by EHS, and there’s actually a small community of sufferers in the town of Green Bank, where most forms of RFR have been banned to avoid interfering with the nearby National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
The problem is that while the symptoms may be real enough, researchers have been unable to establish a link between them and RFR despite many attempts. In fact, tests reveal EHS sufferers “almost always report symptoms when they know [RFR] is on, and not when they know it is off,” according to James Rubin, a psychologist at King’s College in London who’s gone through the literature. But when participants are incorrectly told when the RFR is on or off, “they report symptoms to the same extent in both conditions.” This suggests the cause is psychogenic.
The final concern is privacy. As the Congressional Research Service put it, “Data recorded by smart meters must be highly detailed, and, consequently, it may show what individual appliances a consumer is using. The data must also be transmitted to electric utilities — and possibly to third parties outside of the smart grid — subjecting it to potential interception or theft as it travels over communications networks and is stored in a variety of physical locations.” The American Civil Liberties Union has noted at least one instance in which major California utilities expressed concerns with the amount of smart meter data that could be handed over to law enforcement, for example. The ACLU recommends that subpoenas be presented to customers themselves rather than utilities, that customer consent be required to share data, and that smart meter installation should be based on an opt-in rather than an opt-out model.
At least part of the problem is the sheer newness of the field. Laws across the federal and state governments, as well as municipalities and individual utility policies, are still crystalizing. And some companies fail to take basic precautions like sending information with proper encryption. Presumably these are the sorts of problems that will get solved as the technology is more widely adopted and standards are converged on. Other suggestions include delinking data from identities, so mass data could be used for social and economic research, but wouldn’t be attributable to individuals. And at least some utilities are already tackling these problems.