In this guest blog, 2019 Color of Surveillance delegate and MediaJustice Network member Gabriela Sandoval of The Utility Reform Network (TURN) explores how energy usage data is used by I.C.E. to surveil immigrant communities.

Imagine it’s 6pm on Wednesday. You just got home from work. The kids are all doing homework in their bedroom and the living room. The television is on.

There’s music playing somewhere. You start a load of laundry and begin preparing dinner. An hour later, you load the dishwasher and sit down to watch television. There are four phones charging in the house and two computers plugged in. You probably aren’t thinking about your electricity consumption, but if your utility company has installed a smart meter at your home in order to measure your electricity use, that smart meter is sending intermittent signals, usually every hour, to your utility company. 

Did you know that your energy usage data can be used to tell when you are home? Or when you aren’t at home? It can be used to track your family’s comings and goings. It can even be used to tell what kind of appliances you use. That data can then be requested by attorneys and law enforcement in civil and criminal proceedings and by federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

As I mentioned during the recent Color Of Surveillance conference earlier this month, in California, Border Utility Rights Network (BURN), a project of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), partners with the sanctuary movement to protect the rights of border communities to affordable, safe, and secure utility service in their homes. With BURN, we mobilize sanctuary movement organizations, social service agencies and privacy activists to inform undocumented workers that signing up for utility discount programs is not reported to the federal government as a public charge, that families who lose their homes or jobs to wildfires have extra protections, and that it is important to stop San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and other utility companies from turning over smart meter data to ICE. Our BURN project is a salient reminder that to resist surveillance in immigrant communities, we must co-create solutions that are informed by the intersectionality of our movements. Climate justice is economic justice is freedom from surveillance.   

To learn more and take our smart meter privacy survey, go to:

Gabriela Sandoval

Gabriela Sandoval joined TURN in April 2016 in the new position of Research Director for TURN’s Addressing the Health Impacts of Utility Shutoffs project. Gabriela works with community-based organizations in several parts of California—with a focus on communities struggling to make ends meet—to develop a better understanding of where and why utility shutoffs occur, how shutoffs impact the health of families and communities, and how to stop them. Before coming to TURN Gabriela was research director at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a national “think-and-do tank” in Oakland, where she designed and managed projects focused on building wealth and opportunity for communities. Previously, Gabriela was a faculty member of the Department of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz and Academic Coordinator for a professional midwifery school in Mexico.


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