Whenever I look at whatever a company is selling, I try to figure out who benefits.  Clearly the company wouldn't do whatever the thing is if there weren't some benefit to the company.  But I also wonder whether the benefit to the customer is real, or just a spin on a non-benefit that makes it seem like one.  For example, when a company says, 'New Packaging For Extra Freshness' I wonder if that means it wasn't fresh before, and is it just hiding the fact that while the jar is the same size, the contents have been reduced and the price raised.

Smart meters being installed by NYSEG is about a quarter of Tompkins County is a case in point.  According to the company the meters will provide accurate, hourly data to both the company and its customers to eliminate estimated billing and provide opportunities to control how you use energy.  That sounds good, and customers love anything that will save money.  But what does this mean for privacy in our own homes? 

I'll be honest.  I am having a mixed reaction.  On the one hand the geeky side of me is intrigued with the technology.  I can see all kinds of exciting benefits down the road, not the least of which is the elimination of estimated billing, which befits the utility, but not the customer.  Now we will pay for what we're using as the meters radio our usage back to the company, not play a monthly guessing game.  I already love controlling my thermostat from my phone so it will be warm when I get home from a trip because I turned on the heat from 30 miles away.

On the other hand the more our devices know about us, the more they become capable of being intrusive.  One of the people at Tuesday's information session was particularly worried about the capabilities of smart meters to figure out what we're doing in our homes and report it back to NYSEG.  That could potentially lead to all kinds of invasive advertising or worse.

For example, I have received a few emails from Honeywell that I could save up to $85 on my electric bill if I let them turn down my WiFi-enabled thermostat during peak times, for instance, when everybody is using their air conditioners.  "Honeywell and NYSEG have teamed up to save you energy and turn it into real dollars. You can earn $85 when you enroll in Smart Savings Rewards. Plus, for each event that you fully participate in, you can earn $5 in bill credits. Enroll your thermostat to begin saving," the email reads.

This is creepy.  It is tantamount to letting a stranger into my house to control how I feel inside.  When it comes to being Big Brother, it comes down to this: just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it.  NYSEG is saying they don't even want to do it.  That doesn't mean someone won't do it in the future.  Hackers are already illegally invading IoT (Internet of Things) devices like thermostats.  I don't want to live in a world where big companies and/or the government can legally do it.

ISPs (Internet Service providers) can tell what you do online, because you go through their equipment to get to the Internet.  The Trump administration is rolling back rules that would have at least partly prevented these companies from taking advantage of these capabilities at your expense.  This is something every Internet user should be concerned about.  If not concerned, then stark raving bonkers panicking about it.

So I understand that skeptical fellow's concern.

On the other other hand (do I have this many hands?), this 'save up to $85' program is opt-in.  They won't do it unless I tell them to, and I presume I could opt back out if I ever did decide to opt in.  In my case the creepy factor (and a few other reasons) make it unlikely that I would opt in.  But someone else might want to do it, either for the money or to save the planet or because they think it is a nifty thing to do.

There are two pieces of their Energy Smart Community program that are very encouraging as far as privacy is concerned.  The first is that not only will the smart meters radio accurate usage data to NYSEG, but they plan to share that data with their customers.  You will be able to log into a Web site where you will see your own hour to hour usage, choose pricing that may benefit you, and eventually be able to manage how devices in your home consume and conserve energy.

The second is that NYSEG is making all these various 'opportunities' optional.  You can even opt out of a smart meter if you really don't want one.  Although you may have to pay for the privilege... an example was given of a utility in another community that charges a fee for meter reading for customers who didn't want a smart meter.

Our skeptical neighbor at the smart meter meeting was right to ask the questions about the capability of the meters to be invasive.  That is something customers should keep asking, even as we eventually become complacent while we enjoy the benefits of them.  For now, at least, this program appears to be something that will not choose to spy on us, and something that will benefit us all -- NYSEG, customers, and the planet.