Are Thermographic Snapshots of Your Home an Invasion of Privacy?

By Jill Krasny

A buzzy new startup called Essess is mashing up Google Street View and Zillow to create an extensive online database of home energy audits. Green-minded bloggers love it (see Grist), while architects fear that it's an invasion of privacy. Who's in the right?

"The plan is to identify every weak link and thermal problem with the building and then provide a tangible ROI-based solution to the building owners," Essess CEO Storm Duncan told CleanTechnica.

This means sending cars to every building in the U.S. so that drivers can take high-speed thermal scans of private and commercial properties, and then assigning them an energy score to be stored in a massive library. In checking the efficiency insights, building owners could easily spot heating and cooling problems, then take steps to plug up their leaky buildings. As it is, says Essess, the country is hemorrhaging billions of dollars each year on energy use.

The "light touch" analysis idea has venture capitalists salivating -- the company's already raised $6 million, CleanTechnica reports -- but critics like Lloyd Alter, an architect blogging at Treehugger, aren't so convinced that the high-tech energy scans are worth the intrusion into our homes.

"Is it legal? In Kyllo v. United States in 2001, the Supreme Court looked at a case in which the Feds used thermal imaging cameras to confirm a grow-op that had high-intensity heat generating lamps," he writes. He then cites Justice Scalia's opinion, which said:

"Where, as here, the Government uses a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a 'search' and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant."

Beyond that, Alter questions whether Essess' technology is even all that accurate. Can drive-by cameras really compare an empty home to a home with a party inside? What about homes made of different materials (brick vs. stucco), or fixer-uppers that owners have sunk thousands of dollars into? In the latter case, a low energy score might not be reason enough to spend more money on rewiring an older home.

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The Pros and Cons of Buying a Fixer-Upper
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