Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Privacy Power Your Rights Online

Is Your Electricity Meter Spying On You? 405

Posted by samzenpus
from the unseen-mechanized-eye dept.
lee1 writes "If you have a 'smart meter,' it is collecting data that can reveal when you wake up, when you leave for work and come home, when you go on vacation and when you take a shower. This data is commercially valuable and, if sold to third parties, can lead to privacy invasion on a massive scale. The California Public Utility Commission is reacting to the gas and electric company's mass installation of these meters with new proposals for strong privacy protections."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Is Your Electricity Meter Spying On You?

Comments Filter:
  • But.... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Haffner (1349071) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @01:46PM (#36096458)
    These are what keep us SAFE because it lets power companies notify law enforcement when our neighbors are growing marijuana! We NEED these to keep us SAFE!
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Your smart meter data shows you were in the shower at 09:30 this morning and not stuck in traffic! Don't bother coming into work tomorrow Haffner - you're fired!

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Mashiki (184564)

      Funny. I thought they were there so they could rape people in the face with excessively high power costs. Which are the result of massive conservation efforts.

      • by kqs (1038910)

        Without conservation efforts, power costs wouldn't be excessively high? That seems optimistic.

      • Smart metering should reduce power costs and consumption, not increase it. With the current system, most of the electricity we produce is simply wasted. If the public utility has more information about usage patterns, it should be able to conserve more energy.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Dunbal (464142) *

          Smart metering should reduce power costs and consumption, not increase it.

          Welcome to the exponential part of the population growth curve, where it doesn't matter what you do, there are no longer enough resources to go around.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by whovian (107062)

      One man's 600 W marijuana farm is another man's compute cluster.

      • by Mashiki (184564)

        Obviously that compute cluster is used for child porn. QUICK OFF WITH HIS HEAD!

        • by Haffner (1349071)
          Clearly, all customers who consume electricity more than one standard deviation above the norm should be eligible for a warrantless search of their house.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            You say that jokingly, and yet, that is the SOLE piece of evidence that has been used at least three times in my county alone (three that I personally know of, probably has been more) to justify breaking down someone's door at 3AM on a drug raid. Granted, one time out of those three the person actually WAS growing pot, but the other two times? And no, the people were not compensated in any way, including for the damage to their property and possessions.

            • by h4rr4r (612664)

              How did they get that evidence without a court order?
              Getting the court order for the data from the electric company should require some other evidence right?

              • The electric company might just give the data to the cops without ever being asked. Power companies typically like average customers, not peak customers (although they do like customers who use lots of power at off-peak times). If someone hands the cops something, they don't need a warrant. The only question then is if the people with their doors busted in have any recourse against the power company.
              • How did they get that evidence without a court order? Getting the court order for the data from the electric company should require some other evidence right?

                Some police agencies have tried overflying neighborhoods and noting infrared hot spots. A home that is pumping out "too much" heat may be the tip off. Note that warrants do not require the same burden of proof as conviction at trial, warrants only need "reasonable" cause.

                Like odors, IR leaking into the public domain needs no warrant.

                • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                  by Anonymous Coward

                  "Like odors, IR leaking into the public domain needs no warrant."

                  Nope. An infrared scan constitutes a search. They would have to get a warrant, first, in order to do the thermal imaging.

                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyllo_v._United_States

          • by jeffmeden (135043)

            Warrantless? Of course there will be a warrant...

    • These are what keep us SAFE because it lets power companies notify law enforcement when our neighbors are growing marijuana! We NEED these to keep us SAFE!

      I grow marijuana, you insensitive clod!

    • Telemarketers use this so they can call you just as you get out of the shower.

  • is signalling the CIA

    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @01:58PM (#36096640) Homepage

      is signalling the CIA

      We told you not to go and load Debian on it, but would you listen? No, of course not.

  • Privacy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Renraku (518261) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @01:48PM (#36096488) Homepage

    People need to realize that any device that can collect and transmit data will probably be used to collect more data than they should. That data will PROBABLY end up being sold, simply because people are willing to pay for it. Since it is our data, why can't we demand a cut of the profits?

    • by blair1q (305137)

      Could you repeat that?

      signed,

      the NSAA.

  • by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @01:49PM (#36096502)
    If they aren't protected with strong security, and thieves can extract the information, it's as good as people posting all that information on Facebook or similar.
    • Yes. I can just see the thieves breaking into the power comapny, finding the data, pouring over their data with statistical software to determine when you won't be home. Then breaking in with a crowbar to steal your TV.

      Granted, that's about what they did as part of finding UBL, but that's a different bunch of guys than the ones stealing TVs.
    • by MrEricSir (398214)

      Good thing my server and fridge are using massive amounts of electricity even when I'm in another country.

      (Sorry, environment.)

  • How can this data be used against you in any way, other than the fact that someone can steal stuff from your house if they know you arent home?

    • Try thinking about it. Try thinking about yourself in other peoples' shoes, using this data to persecute or do wrong to someone... Be creative. Brainstorm.

      These tools were emphasized a lot in elementary school -- use them. I would spoonfeed, but that won't help you be a better thinker.

    • What about selling the data to your employer so they can keep track of you? Not as damaging as burglary, but still a huge invasion of privacy.
      • by Arlet (29997)

        The power company doesn't know who I work for. Also, I can't imagine anything in my power usage that any employer would consider valuable information.

  • So you install a constant-velocity motor generator set and...

    well, if you were a military installation protecting something important, then it'd be a bit different. Yes, it's very wrong to sell it to a commercial entity, but it's not wrong at all to collect it. You're buying power from these people -- it would be like asking your water company to stop using their AMR equipment. Or gas -- oh no, they know when my water heater cycles and I use the stove. It's strange, I feel that people are diverging on pr
    • On the one hand, they don't care about privacy of their personal lives and relationships (re: Facebook) but now they care that someone knows how much electricity they're using?

      Some of us don't use Facebook or other social media with a real name attached for that very reason. Why should we be lumped in with the unwashed masses who give away CC numbers for a free soda?

      Water/power are utilities, they are run by private companies but they are local government granted monopolies. That means we as the public get a say in how they are run and what they collect and what they use it for. I can't choose a different power or water company. Phone service has been much the same way un

    • Re:Classic TEMPEST (Score:4, Insightful)

      by dgatwood (11270) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @02:04PM (#36096714) Journal

      No, attitudes on privacy aren't diverging. You're just misrepresenting them.

      I post on Facebook what I choose to post. Therefore, Facebook posts are not a privacy violation (unless they ignore my privacy settings) because the act of making those posts was an act of explicit consent to share that information with the people I chose to share it with. Yes, stupid people will post stupid things that allow others to invade their privacy, but you can't legislate away stupidity.

      By contrast, I don't choose what information my water meter collects. Therefore, the water company should not be allowed to disclose any information that it collects. Similarly, Facebook should not be allowed to disclose anything that I don't explicitly allow them to disclose. And so on.

      Disclosure of private information should require explicit consent. The deeper you hide that consent in some service agreement, the bigger the privacy violation you're committing. Simple as that.

    • by LehiNephi (695428)
      There's a key difference. When people post on facebook/foursquare/twitter/etc, they are willingly divulging the details of their own personal lives. When your electric company does the same thing with its customers' information, it will likely be done without their knowledge or consent, and not at the customers' initiative.

      It's about who controls the information.
  • I seem to be the only person not allowed to collect data from the smart meter on my house. I have allow Google to collect the data for me or I can't access it at all.
  • Beats letting some random stranger (potential murderer) in your house to read the meter.

    Also, "can reveal". Can being the operative word, really they are just inferring from spikes in electricity usage when certain things might be happening, they can't really tell the difference between taking a shower and suddenly turning on every appliance in your house just for shits and giggles. Nor can they tell the difference between leaving for work and deciding to sulk in complete darkness because you're feeling got

    • Beats letting some random stranger (potential murderer) in your house to read the meter.

      How does whether it is collected manually or electronically change the fact that it is collected? The latter is a bigger scope but can be done with the former especially since electric meters are usually outside anyway...

      they can't really tell the difference between taking a shower and suddenly turning on every appliance in your house just for shits and giggles.

      Except that nobody does that. Surveillance works with routines and normal. If they see your power drop every day at 8:30am, it's pretty clear you aren't home and they can now verify that by seeing your car(s) leave. The collected data lets them get a feel, then actual surveillance is

      • by _0xd0ad (1974778)

        How does whether it is collected manually or electronically change the fact that it is collected? The latter is a bigger scope but can be done with the former especially since electric meters are usually outside anyway...

        It's not collecting the meter read that's a problem, it's the unscrupulous folks who claim they're from the electric co. to read your meter when in fact they just found some uniform-ish looking clothes at the thrift store and want to see what sort of valuables you have in the house. Or, for that matter, the meter readers who really do work for the electric co. but whose night job isn't so honorable.

        • it's the unscrupulous folks who claim they're from the electric co. to read your meter

          The meter is outside... And any modern utility has long since put distance readable meters so the techs don't even need to be in your yard...

      • by wjousts (1529427)

        especially since electric meters are usually outside anyway...

        Nope. Not round my way at least. My meter is in the basement (but uses broadband over power lines to communicate a reading).

        My boss got a shock last week when she happened to be home at lunch time. There was a key in the door and in walks the gas man, plain as day. Needless to say, she was more than a little freaked out. She recently moved house and apparently the gas man has keys to most of the houses in her neighborhood. I'd take a smart meter over that any day.

        • the gas man has keys to most of the houses in her neighborhood.

          I call BS. Unless she or her family gave him a key, how did he get it?

      • The difference is the time precision.

        My electricity meter is the old electromechanical one and is outside. The speed at which the disk is spinning indicates the power consumed, but if you want to know when I use more power you would have to stand next to the meter and count the revolutions. Or come to it a few times a day to take the readings.

        Of course the power company knows how much energy I use in a month, because I have to pay for it.

        The "smart meters" collect the data 750 to 3000 times a month, so up t

  • How many /. articles has there been just this past week on companies getting in trouble with the data they collect about their customers? It seems like there needs to be pretty broad laws that cover how ALL companies are allowed to handle user data. Arguing that they shouldn't collect that data, I think, is a bit silly, especially because it helps companies focus on what products to make or how to better tailor their resources to fit consumer needs. However, selling the privacy I entrusted to company X to c

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      Arguing that they shouldn't collect that data, I think, is a bit silly, especially because it helps companies focus on what products to make or how to better tailor their resources to fit consumer needs.

      Or, if they're the power company, it lets them screw their customers by charging more for power while not building more power stations and knowing customers have little or no other option unless they want to disconnect from the grid.

  • by LordStormes (1749242) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @01:57PM (#36096628) Homepage Journal

    This is getting ridiculous. Half the posts on /. are "Oh noes, companies can find out when I X!" If companies want that information, they'll just look at your Facebook account, where you posted pictures of your office, your cat, check-in data at the porn store up on the corner, and links to your YouTube video of your marijuana plants for all the world to see. We cannot simultaneously be a society that wants to share everything and keep everything secret.

    • by chemicaldave (1776600) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @02:05PM (#36096726)
      The flaw in your logic is that not everyone uses facebook. Facebook is voluntary, the electric meter is not.
    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      We cannot simultaneously be a society that wants to share everything and keep everything secret.

      There are 2 major differences between posting stuff on the web, and companies spying on you and selling that information:
      1. Anything somebody posts up on the web for the world to see is something they (or at least somebody present at the time) chose to post. And we don't share everything: Somebody could post "I just got married to a wonderful lady!" and include a picture of the bride in her wedding dress, but not include her bra size or her credit score or the fact that they met in an S&M club.

      2. When p

  • Smart meters can pinpoint time of usage. Of course it's possible to extrapolate the user's living habits from this additional data. The summary makes it sound like the thing is intentionally spying. You could do the same thing with the old analog meters except it would be more along the lines of "they probably went on vacation this month" since the sampling interval by the power company was monthly. Smart meters are like reading the analog dials every 5 minutes (or whatever the sampling interval is).

    Or for

    • all someone would need to do is point a camera at your analog meter dials transmitting back to an unmarked van recording the values every 15 minutes.

      Just because it's easy to do doesn't mean it should be done, especially on such a large scale as this. I don't understand the hate for the proposal. It's taking preventative measures to make sure this data doesn't all into the wrong hands.

    • by Arlet (29997)

      all someone would need to do is point a camera at your analog meter dials transmitting back to an unmarked van recording the values every 15 minutes.

      I think I would notice a camera set up inside my house.

  • Smart Meters don't know anything about when you leave for work or use your toaster, or when you shower, or anything else specific about your energy use beyond how many kW you are using at any given time. They record your energy usage at set intervals, which data can then be used to *guess* how you may be using it. If you happen to have fifty lights in your home that are all on until the moment you walk out the door to go to work in the morning, then yes, they could probably guess when you leave... or, it co

  • ...that sees through the BS that surrounds these smart meters. The power company will say something like this: "this great new technology helps you use energy more efficiently, so you can be more green!" This is what I hear: "We are going to install new meters that allow us to charge you more for electricity when you use it when you most need it."

    I need /. to let me know... am I the only one?

    -d

    • by Ichijo (607641)

      This is what I hear: "We are going to install new meters that allow us to charge you more for electricity when you use it when you most need it."

      It costs them more to generate electricity during peak periods (because they save the most expensive power generation for when they really need it), so why shouldn't they charge more when it costs them more?

      Also, when it costs them less, they charge less than they do with flat-rate billing. This gives people an ability to economize that doesn't exist with flat-rate

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        It costs them more to generate electricity during peak periods (because they save the most expensive power generation for when they really need it), so why shouldn't they charge more when it costs them more?

        What incentive do they have to build more power stations to support peak demands, if they can just charge more and know that there's no real competition?

        • by Ichijo (607641)

          What incentive do they have to build more power stations to support peak demands, if they can just charge more and know that there's no real competition?

          Residential solar panels, which conveniently reach peak output around the same time of day [caiso.com] that conventional electricity becomes the most expensive to produce, is competition.

    • "We are going to install new meters that allow us to charge you more for electricity when you use it when you most need it."

      I need /. to let me know... am I the only one?

      That energy really is the most important, and when you need it most is when everybody else in your neighborhood does too.

      In the power utility where I worked we had a "peaker" which was basically a jet engine on blocks which kicked in at peak time, when the cost of buying surplus (if any) off the grid exceeded the cost of running the peaker. The cost per kwh (energy produced) was much, much higher than the coal plant. But the cost per kw (power capacity) was much, much lower. Since it only ran maybe

  • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @02:06PM (#36096750)
    I may be remembering incorrectly, but it seems to me that I remember the California Public Utilities Commission pushing the utilities to install these. If that is correct, why did they wait until now to investigate the privacy implications? Wouldn't the correct time to have investigated the privacy implications been before you pushed the utilities to install these all over the place? I do know that when these were first introduced there were a lot of people asking these very questions.
  • I am 95% sure these meters have all been hacked. I saw a demo in first person. (It might have been faked, I suppose.)

    So, the bad guys drive around to find out who is on vacation?

  • For some reason this doesn't sound as threatening as my credit card data or internet history being leaked...

  • by GeekMarine72 (897842) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @02:14PM (#36096862) Journal
    I've worked for a firm that collects this data. The technology, as it's exists now, is incapable of the level of analysis described. The data is flow is massive and only summation for billing is viable. Even then, "sanitization" of data is common practices. While protective legislation and guidance is encouraged before it goes too far, there are far greater violations including IP address mapping between logins on identifying solutions (gmail, yahoo mail) and apparent "anonymous" sites. Flash Persisted Objects being one aspect, IP + browser fingerprinting, and collaboration between marketing organizations and online retailers are bigger risks. The part that sucks is we can't opt out of smart metering. Security is quite solid but if I had any advice to the PUCs it would be to mandate truck roles for power turn off / turn down. The current broadcast model on smart meters combined with the potential to brute force the master key for broadcasting means someone with a bit of knowledge and desire could inject into the meshed network a flag to shut down broad swaths of power consumers, which in turn could lead to a surge back into the grid causing other catastrophic outages. GM72
    • by russotto (537200)

      I've worked for a firm that collects this data. The technology, as it's exists now, is incapable of the level of analysis described. The data is flow is massive and only summation for billing is viable.

      I can think of a few companies which could do the analysis. It's probably not even an order of magnitude larger than cell phone billing records, and smaller than cell phone location records. Even if it were technically infeasible to analyze the data now, that would change quickly.

      Safeguards are meaningless;

  • Energy prices already fluctuate depending on usage times (even if you have abstracted this detail away with a fixed rate plan).

    What I want to see a public API for accessing this data so we can tell when to get the best drain for our bucks.

    Ultimately, I see this evolving similarly to the stock market. We can have computers that precisely control our lighting and appliances much like a high frequency trader's computers do.

    Imagine being able to get the absolute best price for electricity, (a few dollar

    • and turning on a light results in a sporadic strobe effect.

      I, for one, welcome our seizure-inducing electric overlords.

  • I feel for all those peeps out there seeing their utility bills skyrocket after these things are installed. The less baseload you use the more you pay. Since they can predict exactly what the usage will be at large scales the easier it becomes to tweak the system to extract maximum $$$.

    In terms of privacy even with the best protections on paper it is still more shit that can be used against you... A divorce attrny filing subpeonas to make the case you are a lazy bastard who constantly sleeps in or LEA on

  • by iiii (541004) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @02:25PM (#36097048) Homepage
    I hear google is starting a new service where you get your electricity for free, but they get to keep all the usage data and do whatever they want with it. As a first test of the utility of this they are modeling when people are home and when they are not, then door-to-door sales organizations get to participate in an auction to buy time segments of people at home. Rumor has it that the Girl Scouts and the Jehovah's Witnesses were having a bidding war for your house at 6:45-7:15 PM next tuesday. Next they will target your computer with ads for porn when you are using the laptop after 11PM and the wife has set her alarm earlier than 7AM and turned off the upstairs lights. Other applications to follow.

    Ok, ok, i just made that up.
  • Any data can be used good or bad. For example for good it could be used so we pay more during peak time and less for off hours. This would normally be good for home users as most people are out to work during peak times thus are paying less. Also a lot of this data is not really too useful, as it doesn't prove anything. Do you take a shower at 6:00 or is your thermostat on a timer and you heat rises at 6:00 so when you wake up at 7:00 your house is warm and toasty.

    • by berashith (222128)

      I think you meant that we will pay more during peak hours and the same during off hours. There is no way the utilities will use this to lower their revenues.

  • They have smart water meters, too.

    It's a double-edged sword. Sure... if they cared, they could use it to determine when you were in the shower. But then again, they can also detect that your toilet is leaking ~1gpm and notify you before you get your next bill and discover that you were billed for using 40,000 gallons of water that month.

    • by Surt (22457)

      1 gpm is a really fast leak. You would almost certainly notice that (assuming you were home). And the $60 it would cost you, while significant, is also not a killer for most people's budgets, at least not people who leave home for long enough for this to matter, and who have both smart meters and a way to get informed of a leak.

  • by Surt (22457)

    Privacy invasion on a massive scale. Hilarious.

It's time to boot, do your boot ROMs know where your disk controllers are?

Working...