U.S. Seventh Circuit - The FindLaw 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Smart Meter Data Protected by Fourth Amendment

Smart meters have been a curiously controversial issue. Though most of the uproar that local news captured seemed to be from delusional paranoid individuals, it turns out there was another, more serious, and real danger.

Smart meter data can tell law enforcement a lot about an individual or household. And though the use of smart meters may not seem like such a huge intrusion upon a person's individual civil liberties and right to privacy, the Seventh Circuit explained that smart meter data does fall under the Fourth Amendment's protections; however, city utilities, generally, have a reasonable purpose for accessing the information and therefore do not need a warrant.

What's a Reasonable Smart Meter Search?

It's sometimes easy to forget that the Fourth Amendment only protects against "unreasonable" searches. The Seventh Circuit's recent decision makes the smart meter reasonableness line much much clearer, explaining the data gleaned from smart meters is nearly as sensitive as the geo-location data gleaned from smartphones.

While the court explained that a utility service provider acts reasonably when it collects data from smart meters according to a predetermined system, prior decisions had ruled that it didn't qualify as a Fourth Amendment search.

This Naperville decision makes it less ambiguous as to whether law enforcement needs to get a warrant before getting this data from utility service providers, even if those providers are a government entity.

Double Secret Privacy Waiver

Interestingly, the city utility tried to argue that the residents waived their expectation of privacy, especially to third parties, by agreeing to use the smart meters. The court dinged the city here pretty hard though as the city's smart meter program was not actually voluntary and the residents didn't have any choice.

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