Is Your Smart Meter Spying On You?


Preface: The original intent of smart meters may been good … conserve energy by setting up a “smart grid” to maximize the efficiency of energy distribution. But there are questions about potential health effects from smart meters.  And – in this era of pervasive spying – it’s important to know where the threats to our privacy are coming from.

Burglars, Hackers and the Government All Want to See Your Smart Meter Data

NBC News reports:

Researchers examining the privacy implications of smart-meter technology found that one German provider’s devices contained vulnerabilities that allowed them to snoop on unencrypted data to determine whether or not the homeowners were home.

After signing up with the German smart-meter firm Discovergy, the researchers detected that the company’s devices transmitted unencrypted data from the home devices back to the company’s servers over an insecure link. The researchers, Dario Carluccio and Stephan Brinkhaus, intercepted the supposedly confidential and sensitive information, and, based on the fingerprint of power usage, were able to tell not only whether or not the homeowners were home, away or even sleeping, but also what movie they were watching on TV.

Network World points out:

At the last Chaos Communication Congress in Germany, researchers presented “Smart Hacking For Privacy” and demonstrated that detailed smart meter data can show what TV shows you watch, scan for copyright-protected DVD movies you watch, and other privacy intrusive details.

Network World also notes:

Smart meters provide highly detailed energy-use data. The info can be used by police to find and to bust indoor pot farms, by insurance companies to determine health care premiums, and by criminals to determine if you own high-dollar appliances and when is the best time to steal them. And that’s only the tip of the potential privacy invasion iceberg.


In central Ohio, police file at least 60 subpoenas each month for energy-use records of people suspected in indoor marijuana growing operations, reported the Columbus Dispatch. Most of the houses with indoor pot growing operations are reportedly in quiet neighborhoods without much traffic. DEA agent Anthony Marotta said the subpoena is only one tool used to catch “grow house” operators. Police get a tip about suspicious activity, but if undercover officers don’t discover anything illegal during a stake out, then utility consumption records can be sought. “How else can I get an indicator to get probable cause if I can’t see anything?” Marotta said to reporter Dean Narciso.


The U.S. Department of Energy warned [PDF] that smart grid technology can provide a highly detailed household profile of energy consumption and said policies are needed to restrict utilities from sharing consumer usage data with third parties. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) outlined Potential Privacy Impacts that Arise from the Collection and Use of Smart Grid Data [PDF].

From reading it, a person might wonder if smart meters will be real-time surveillance spies. It suggests that insurance companies might use the smart meter data to determine health care premiums, such as if there is high usage at night which would indicate sleep behavior problems. Besides looking to bust pot farmers, law enforcement might use the data as “real-time surveillance to determine if residents are present and current activities inside the home.” The press might wish to see the smart meter data of celebrities. Criminals may want to see the data to determine the best time for a burglary and what high dollar appliances you might have to steal. Marketers might want the data for profiling and targeting advertisements. Creditors might want the data to determine if behavior indicates creditworthiness.


Lockheed Martin general manager of Energy and Cyber Services said the smart grid could include as many as 440 million new hackable points by the end of 2015, reported Computerworld.

The New York Times writes:

Writing in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, the environmental scientist Jan Beyea foresees a world in which epidemiologists could harvest data on how people live from day to day — their use of electric blankets or microwave ovens, for example — and correlate such activities with the likelihood of developing certain health conditions. The meter data could serve as a check on information obtained from the questionnaires that are used in such studies, he said.

With data from thousands or millions of smart meters, researchers could design tools to measure how many times a day a refrigerator door was opened, relevant to dietary and obesity research, or sleep patterns, relevant to a wide range of health research, he wrote.

National Geographic notes:

 “It’s not hard to imagine a divorce lawyer subpoenaing this information, an insurance company interpreting the data in a way that allows it to penalize customers, or criminals intercepting the information to plan a burglary,” the private nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a blog post about smart meters.


The European Union’s data protection watchdog warned earlier this year that smart meters, while bringing significant potential benefits, also could be used track whether families “are away on holiday or at work, if someone uses a specific medical device or a baby-monitor, how they like to spend their free time and so on.” The European Data Protection Supervisor urged that member states provide the public with more information on how the data is being handled.


The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) … was involved in producing a comprehensive report on privacy with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that summarizes, often in chilling detail, the many ways in which privacy breaches could occur on the smart grid, and recommends best practices for preventing those breaches. “As Smart Grid implementations collect more granular, detailed, and potentially personal information, this information may reveal business activities, manufacturing procedures, and personal activities in a given location,” the NIST report said.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

Critics of “smart meters” have often warned that the advanced electricity and gas meters can invade privacy by revealing when someone is and isn’t home.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, they have reason to worry.

The civil rights group on Wednesday reported that California’s three big, investor-owned utilities had disclosed individual account information on thousands of their customers last year, usually to government agencies armed with subpoenas.

Last year, the United States Congressional Research Service addressed some of the  issues involved:

Data recorded by smart meters must be highly detailed, and, consequently, it may show what individual appliances a consumer is using. The data must also be transmitted to electric utilities—and possibly to third parties outside of the smart grid—subjecting it to potential interception or theft as it travels over communications networks and is stored in a variety of physical locations.

These characteristics of smart meter data present privacy and security concerns that are likely to become more prevalent as government-backed initiatives expand deployment of the meters to millions of homes across the country. In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), Congress appropriated funds for the implementation of the Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) program administered by the Department of Energy. This program now permits the federal government to reimburse up to 50% of eligible smart grid investments, which include the cost to electric utilities of buying and installing smart meters. In its annual report on smart meter deployment, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission cited statistics showing that the SGIG program has helped fund the deployment of about 7.2 million meters as of September 2011.15 At completion, the program will have partially funded the installation of 15.5 million meters. By 2015, the Institute for Electric Efficiency expects that a total of 65 million smart meters will be in operation throughout the United States.

The CRS discussed some of the laws which may govern smart meter data:

If smart meter data and transmissions fall outside of the protection of the Fourth Amendment, they may still be protected from unauthorized disclosure or access under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). These statutes, however, would appear to permit law enforcement to access smart meter data for investigative purposes under procedures provided in the SCA, ECPA, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), subject to certain conditions. Additionally, an electric utility’s privacy and security practices with regard to consumer data may be subject to Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has recently focused its consumer protection enforcement on entities that violate their privacy policies or fail to protect data from unauthorized access. This authority could apply to electric utilities in possession of smart meter data, provided that the FTC has statutory jurisdiction over them. General federal privacy safeguards provided under the Federal Privacy Act of 1974 (FPA) protect smart meter data maintained by federal agencies, including data held by federally owned electric utilities.

The CRS report notes the incompleteness of the laws applying to smart meters. And – given that the FISA court has recently been shown to rubber-stamp mass surveillance on millions of Americans without any protection – we’re not sure that the current legal protections regarding smart meter data are worth the paper they’re written on.

England is just as bad. As the Telegraph writes:

The devices, which the government plans to install in every home by 2020, will also tell energy firms what sort of appliances are being used, allowing companies to target customers who do not reduce their energy consumption.

Privacy campaigners have expressed horror at the proposals, which come as two million homes have ‘spy’ devices fitted to their rubbish bins by councils who record how much residents are recycling.


In its impact assessment, however, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) says there “is theoretically scope… for using the smart metering communications infrastructure to enable a variety of other services, such as monitoring of vulnerable householders by health authorities or social services departments.”

It adds: “Information from smart meters could also make it possible for a supplier to determine when electricity or gas was being used in a property and, to a degree, the types of technology that were being used within the property. This could be used to target energy efficiency advice and offers of measures, social programmes etc to householders.”

Doretta Cocks, founder of the Campaign for Weekly Waste Collection, said: “This is Orwellian. We’re already under surveillance for what we put outside the home in bins and now we could be watched for what we’re doing inside as well.


Guy Herbert, general secretary of NO2ID, said: “Information from smart meters might be useful to energy providers and perhaps even their customers, but there’s no reason for any public authority to have access to it – unless they’ve a warrant to do so.

“This document is a prime example of government efforts to shoehorn data sharing and feature creep into every new policy.


The DECC document adds households could even have their power to some appliances turned off remotely to help the national grid if there is too much demand.


Consumer Focus, the watchdog, has also expressed concern about the privacy implications of the meters, saying consumers are “at risk of unfair, excessive, inequitable and inefficient charging” because energy companies could use the new data to introduce more complex tariffs to maximise profits at peak times.

And the Age reports that smart meter data from Australian homeowners is shared with random companies:

Detailed information about electricity customers’ power usage, which gives insights into when a house is occupied, is being shared with third parties including mail houses, debt collectors, data processing analysts and government agencies.

Customers with smart meters who sign up for Origin Energy’s online portal must consent to their data being shared with a string of third parties. The data is stored in Australia but shared with US company Tendril, which is described by Origin as a smart energy technology provider.

Australia’s privacy watchdog said the technology could threaten people’s privacy. ”We are starting to see people voicing concern about the level of data that these meters can collect,” federal Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said.


Mr Pilgrim said electricity companies had a legal responsibility to delete or ”de-identify” personal information that was no longer needed. However, an Origin spokesman said the company kept former customers’ data for retrospective queries and ”tax and compliance purposes”.

The state government aims to install smart meters – which log electricity use every half-hour – in all Victorian homes by the end of next year.


Customer information can only be accessed by staff involved in billing. He said the electricity retailer only shared information with third parties when they had a ”legitimate business need to do so in order to meet our service obligations to our customers”.

In the ultimate irony, one of the biggest proponents of smart meters – Northern California’s main utility, Pacific Gas & Electric – was busted in April for spying on anti-smart meter groups:

On Thursday 4th April 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved a settlement in its investigation into Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for spying on anti-Smart Meter groups.  PG&E will be required to pay $390,000 to the state’s General Fund.

This infiltration by PG&E was part of an on-going surveillance program conducted by PG&E and Edelman, a public relations firm PG&E hired in January of 2010 in response to escalating Smart Meter complaints and problems.

As part of this program, the director of the PG&E Smart Meter program, William “Ralph” Devereaux, other PG&E employees and third parties spied on groups with the knowledge of senior PG&E staff.  PG&E employees and senior management exchanged emails insulting and demeaning the members of the anti-SmartMeter groups.  For example, these PG&E customers were referred to “insurgents.”

PG&E coordinated moving an entire Smart Meter deployment yard to derail a non-violent protest and sent an employee to surreptitiously observe and report on the reactions of the protestors, who also transmitted pictures of them to PG&E.  This “spy” expressed his pleasure in observing and taking photos of anti-SmartMeter activists.

Note: Several utilities – including Pacific Gas & Electric – allow you to opt out of the smart meter program. If you insist, they will remove the smart meter from your home.

This entry was posted in Energy / Environment, Politics / World News, Science / Technology. Bookmark the permalink.
  • HS

    For certain, smart meters can be used to secretly gather personal data about customers. However, the real goal of the power companies is to use the meters in conjunction with their monopoly status to force customers to pay a variable rate, to facilitate price gouging during periods of high demand.

    • Frank

      This is no secret. You have described one of the main purposes of smart meters. That is, to get people to be”smart” and reduce their demand when possible during peak periods of use so that we don’t have to keep building more and more power plants. I don’t need to run my dishwasher at 2:00 p.m. when use is high. I can run it when I go to bed when rates would be lower. Americans don’t give a damn about conservation unless it costs them money, so this is the incentive we need to pay attention.

    • Frank

      This is no secret. You have described one of the main purposes of smart meters. That is, to get people to be”smart” and reduce their demand when possible during peak periods of use so that we don’t have to keep building more and more power plants. I don’t need to run my dishwasher at 2:00 p.m. when use is high. I can run it when I go to bed when rates would be lower. Americans don’t give a damn about conservation unless it costs them money, so this is the incentive we need to pay attention.

      • Kropotkin

        I doubt it will be limited to something so trivial as when you run your dishwasher. Expect to pay more to use the same amount of electricity you always have according to anything approaching a normal sleep-wake cycle. If you want Americans to pay more for energy, why not just increase rates across the board rather than install new privacy-invading meters everywhere to provide a convenient justification for a similar policy? The former approach would also incentivize net electricity usage to decrease rather than just peak hours use.

  • gozounlimited

    Our straw man president is going on and on about how global warming is heating us up while avoiding educating the people about geoengineering and how his secret program is destroying the planet. Do you have the courage to act Mr. President?…..Do you have the courage to tell the truth? You have condemned this planet… Mr. Terrorist. You have relentlessly sprayed us with deadly chemicals to prove your lies. Yes, air pollution is a problem…. not CO2.

    Now he expresses his need for a market based solution so we can be robbed while being murdered….taken from the pages of big pharma and big ag. Resolved to improve the air for our safety, the EPA is going to monitor emissions, water, etc….. (I thought they were already doing that). When is the EPA going to monitor chemtrails in our atmosphere? The airborne poisons (chemtrails, weather mod.) that are causing death and disease of all living things is easily ignored by throwing out an economic smoke screen used to convince you your national interest is being served.

    Frack, Frack, Frack yourself to death…… No scientific studies done on the tons of methane released at fracking sites….but it means Jobs. So the terrorist in chief is OK with lying to you if it means jobs…profitable endeavors for corporations…. not you. Your job is to die…..

    • Geoff

      The rationale for smart meters is to charge people more for using peak power, that requirement doesn’t need to be “live” it would be perfectly adequate for the time of usage to be on the customers electricity bill, in fact it would have to be anyway.
      A simple meter only is required, anything else is open to abuse.

  • Jorge

    I recommend reviewing one of C3 Energy’s pitches/presentations. By analyzing smart meter data, C3 Energy can determine what appliances/plug loads you’re using and when you use them through its algorithms of your meter data. The good news is C3 Energy can identify the most cost effective ways for you to lower your home energy bills (on behalf of its utility clients, who don’t want to build more power plants). The bad news is absolute power corrupts absolutely. This data will be accessed by Fed Govt and hackers alike who don’t necessarily have the best intentions. Smart meters is just the start though. As smart appliances become prevalent, users (as well as Fed Govt & hackers) can determine when HVAC, lighting, plug loads, etc. can turn on/off or become active/inactive. As cable/telco companies become a player in smart home security, users (as well as Fed Govt & hackers) can determine when door locks & security systems can turn on/off or become active/inactive. That’s a lot of power available for abuse as the “smart” era becomes the status quo.

    • Kropotkin

      The “smart” components of these appliances are probably no match against a couple swings from a claw hammer. Hopefully the will not be integral to the normal functioning of the appliance.

  • EconRecon101
  • Bob

    Gee, I’ve found the site for paranoia satisfaction. where are the ads for tin hats?

    • Kropotkin

      Amazing that you still can’t acknowledge the truth even when it is placed right before you.

  • Truth_and_Only_the_Truth

    … This “spy” expressed his pleasure in observing and taking photos of anti-SmartMeter activists…. Bill Devereaux is now at ORACLE in charge of strategy … One might be very intrigued to understand his Strategy: Spy & Infiltrate …

  • Ralph Smart

    It is all about Privacy, Security and Trust – But Ralph as VP Strategy has developed a very own approach at getting the needed Insight – Your can get further details on the internet, on google, on youtube. Really interesting, i.e. , etc…

  • smart person

    A smart meter is a dead meter. When I took my family off the grid, the first thing I did when we left our home was take a sledge hammer and bust the smart meter. Right on the wall. I left it in pieces, hanging there for those assholes at the electric company. Of course their meter wasn’t smart enough to tell who busted it up. So all they could do was lump it. Now we only use some solar power. The days of utility companies have been over at our home for a long time. Thats the blessing of living far out in the country, back off the road. They get away with using technology to control our lives because we keep participating in their game. I say to the people. Stop being fools. Give up the modern life and live like our ancestors did. If we all turn away from technology, itll fail. The corporations will crash. And the government will shrink. They need you and me to fuel their madness. So what are you going to do? Be wise or be a fool? Off the grid life is the ONLY true way of life. Its what the smart people do. Because they are smarter than meters.

    • Braden

      Ooo! It’s the Yellow King!

  • First

    We’ve been getting headaches, do normal people get a say in this matter? I mean it’s our home. Isn’t it?