|Photo: COTO Report|
|Smart energy meters send lots of data to power companies -- which can then be subpoenaed by law enforcement.|
At least 60 such subpoenas are filed every month in Ohio alone, reports Dean Narciso at The Columbus Dispatch.
Utilities, while "sensitive" to their customers' expectation of privacy, are compelled by law to provide information about electricity use, said Terri Flora, spokeswoman for American Electric Power, an Ohio utility.
|Photo: AEP Ohio|
|Terri Flora, American Electric Power: "There's not an option to say no."|
"We're obligated when we get these requests," Flora said. "There's not an option to say no."
"It's the sort of news that's likely to make privacy advocates squirm, at a time when utilities around the country are deploying smart grid technologies," writes Jaikumar Vijayan at Computerworld.
Gahanna, Ohio detectives staking out two homes since last year recently requested "billing detail for these addresses, including the subscriber information ... to better identify the participants in this illegal activity," according to a letter accompanying the subpoena. Those cases are still open, police said.
"It's pretty effective," said Lt. Tom Basso, who oversees investigations for the Gahanna Police Department.
|City of Gahanna|
|Lt. Tom Basso: "It's pretty effective"|
"Most of our grows are usually in quiet neighborhoods where there's not a whole lot of traffic," Lt. Basso said. Basements, bedrooms and attics are often used.
The investigative electricity-use subpoena is one tool among many used to build criminal cases against suspected grow house operators, according to Anthony Marotta, assistant special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Ohio.
When police get a tip from an informant related to "suspicious activity" in a home, they sometimes send undercover officers to stake the place out. But even if nothing illegal is observed, they still often seek power-use records.
"How else can I get an indicator to get probable cause if I can't see anything?" Marotta asked.
|Photo: Jay LaPrete/Marion Star|
|DEA Agent Anthony Marotta: "How else can I get an indicator to get probable cause if I can't see anything?"|
If marijuana is being grown inside a home, the utility records reveal far higher energy usage than at comparable homes because of the high-wattage bulbs needed for growing.
"It will generally be three to five times more than anyone else," Marotta said. "These grow lights draw a tremendous amount of wattage. You have to mimic the sun. You can suntan under these things."
In a report released last year [PDF], the U.S. Department of Energy warned that the rollout of smart grid technologies into U.S. homes raises privacy issues lawmakers need to recognize and address.
The energy data captured by smart-metering systems can provide a detailed profile of the behavior and activities of a particular household, according to the report, which called for policies that would restrict information sharing between utility companies and data aggregators.
But even if such policies were adopted, law enforcement authorities would still likely have access to the data when pursuing investigations. Though utilities may not even want to share the data, they can be forced to by a subpoena.
The subpoenas typically seek energy use records for the address under investigation and a few nearby homes "for comparison." Police cannot legally survey large areas -- but then again many cops are quite skilled at finding creative ways around their own rules.
Sometimes, high electricity use doesn't mean marijuana is being grown -- duh! A federal investigation in the Powell, Ohio area turned into an embarrassment for detectives.
"We thought it was a major grow operation .. but this guy had some kind of business involving computers," Marotta said. "I don't know how many computer servers we found in his home."
Hmm... sounds as if high energy usage shouldn't be probable cause for a search warrant at all!