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20 September 2011, 14:59

Smart meters reveal TV viewing habits

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Researchers at the Münster University of Applied Sciences have discoveredGerman language link that it is possible to use electricity usage data from smart electricity meters to determine which programmes consumers are watching on a standard TV set. The experiments were carried out as part of the state-funded DaPriM (data privacy management) projectGerman language link. By analysing electricity consumption patterns, it is, in principle, also possible to identify films played from a DVD or other source.

Light and dark passages in these films, large volumes of data, and a minimum of interference from other devices are the key to performing this analysis. The group's experiments used data from a standard EasyMeter smart meter installed in a normal home. The meter sends electricity usage data to a server every two seconds. The customer profile on the supplier's web server shows the household's total consumption, from which it is possible to extract and analyse TV viewing data.

Until now, the general assumption has been that it would be possible to use typical electricity consumption data from the smart meter for different appliances to determine whether a customer had prepared his or her dinner in the microwave, on the hob or in the oven, but nothing more. That possibility had already spurred data protection officials in the USA, where smart meters are already widely used, into actionPDF – they demanded precise regulations on how electricity meters deal with and protect collected data.

Second by second data transfer makes it possible to carry out much finer analysis. In the opinion of the Münster-based research team, this calls for a tightening of data protection regulations. One solution might be to increase the polling interval or simply to transfer a statistical summary to the electricity generator or provider. This would make the high resolution consumption data required for close analysis unavailable. Either way, the consumer is reliant on the provider taking the appropriate measures.

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