Here’s the news story: Austin requires smart thermostats in all new homes. On the surface, it’s not such an alarming requirement. Smart thermostats help save money by making adjustments to the home temperature to reduce power consumption. The problem is that smart thermostats are internet connected, allowing the possibility of an unprecedented extension of government overreach into homes.
The city of Austin is now requiring these thermostats in all new homes. And the city runs Austin Energy, the local power company. They offer an $85 rebate “to customers who purchase smart thermostats and let the utility adjust the temperature during times of high electricity demand.” That’s a voluntary program. But there is nothing to prevent the program, at some point in the future, from becoming mandatory. If they can pass a law requiring smart thermostats, they can pass a law allowing the city-run utility to regulate your home temperature.
Do you feel hot? Why not just turn up the A/C? Oh, sorry, you can’t. They city power company has decided they need to cut back on the amount of power right now. They turn the A/C down instead. It’s like having a government official enter your home, without permission, and turn down your thermostat.
Now it’s important to note that the program giving the city control over the thermostat setting is currently voluntary. But as these thermostats become mandated by more localities, and eventually by States, the next step of this dance will happen: control of your thermostat by local or State government.
Remember President Jimmy Carter appearing on TV in a sweater, asking Americans to turn down their thermostats during the oil crisis of the 1970′s? Yes, I’m that old. “On February 2, 1977, the newly-inaugurated president appeared on television clad in that sweater, and asked us all to take a simple step to save energy: turn down the thermostat, and put on a sweater.” [Source] He just asked. What’s wrong with that? But in the not so distant future, government will not ask. They will legislate control over your smart thermostat.
And this kind of government intrusion is only going to get worse as time passes. Eventually, your smart home will control your lights, heating/cooling, oven, water temperature and use, cable and phone and internet. And the next step is for government to mandate various types of controls over the use of all these basic household functions.
You’ll wake up one morning, and the smart lights won’t turn on. Government has decided you don’t need lighting during the day time. You’ll take your morning government-mandated cold shower, because hot water wastes energy, which is bad for the environment. Would you like a nice hot breakfast? Too bad, your government overlords have decided that you don’t need to use the oven three meals a day, but only one.
Does that sound scary? It gets worse. All that is if government control of your life is working well. We all know government screws up very frequently. If government has control of your smart home via the internet, they could mistakenly turn the temperature way up, or way down. They could accidentally turn off the water or the power completely. And so on. There’s no end to the ways that a government bureaucracy can turn a simple task into a convoluted mess.
And then there is the possibility of hackers. Anything connected to the internet can be hacked. Alarmingly, it is already the case that internet connected things (other than computers) have been hacked. And it turns out they have far less protection from hacking than computers and smart phones. On top of that, many internet connected things have no way to be updated to close a security loophole.
So when I read that the city of Austin, in their infinitesimal wisdom, is mandating internet-connected smart thermostats, controllable by the city-run utility, I consider the future. And then I shudder.
I consider government overreach to be one of the top long-term political issues, and not all these other things that politicians wrangle about. Give politicians less power, and we’ll all be better off.