Curse Thee, Demon Smart Meter!

Photo credit: Pew Charitable Trust

Photo credit: Pew Charitable Trust

Smart meters could be a key contributor to America’s evolution to an energy-efficient future. The devices measure gas and electricity consumption, helping consumers reduce energy consumption, save money and reduce the CO2 emissions implicated in global warming. The widespread use of smart meters could enable power companies to offer incentives for consumers to shift their electricity consumption away from periods of peak demand, thus cutting costs for everyone.

But a backlash against smart meters is picking up steam. Some say the data they convey over wireless networks can be hacked by criminals to target homes. Utilities say the fears are overblown, but 15 states now allow consumers to opt out of smart meter installations. Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline has the story here.

Good intentions are no match for the stubbornness and perversity of mankind.


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26 responses to “Curse Thee, Demon Smart Meter!

  1. Make shareowners responsible for any hacks that occur unless the utility can show it followed all best practices for security. A utility that tries to save money on security will have its shareowners eat the class action costs.

  2. TMT, I agree with you that cyber-security ought to be a big concern for all businesses today, particularly if you can’t opt out of some vulnerable practice or another. Here’s the other side: your local utility wants to cut meter reader costs and installs meters that one reader can read by radio-link while driving down the street. He can read 20 blocks of meters in one morning. But 6 customers opt out from these meters because they say they get headaches, or the meters spy on them, etc., etc. The meter reader must now park his truck six times and walk up and read those meters the old fashioned way. His productivity is cut in half. The utility is willing to do this to accommodate the customer — despite the regulatory commission’s approval of the new meters and the utility’s belief that such customer fears are misguided. The question for you is, in order to defray the additional cost to all the other customers, should the utility charge the special-treatment customer more?

    • If people had more confidence in institutions putting a priority on cyber-security, I think fewer people would opt-out. But most institutions pay lip service to security and don’t make the effort and spend the money necessary to protect individual’s accounts.

      My wife works for Uncle Sam. Our information was hacked in the big OPM fiasco. We get credit monitoring service. The service indicated someone had ordered my credit report in an attempt to open a department store charge account in my name. I’m pleased to have had the notice, but it took me about two hours to fix the problem. And I have to spend money each month to keep my credit record locked. Now there’s a class action against OPM. Where it goes, who knows. But it does show Americans are under threat from cyber-crooks and need protection.

    • The type of meters you are describing, Ac, are already deployed and being remotely read almost everywhere in the Commonwealth. The “smart” meters will not depend on rolling trucks at all; they will report usage systemwide several times each minute via the Internet. It is this latter type of metering that has raised health and privacy concerns.

  3. they’re opting out because they don’t want to pay more for usage at higher demand times.

    as nothing to do with security… utilities can read meters through the electric wires and encryption is easy.

    the bigger security threat is the ability of hackers to get into the main computers systems – that people’s info already resides on.

    this is basically the same issue as road tolls.. people are opposed.

    • A very few are opting out of time-of-day meters because they don’t want to pay the on-peak rates during the peak hours, even though offset by the off-peak rates, etc. But what Jim is talking about, and what I have seen myself, is the much larger group of customers who object to the presumed invasion of privacy of “smart meters” — these are people who believe the meters contain technology that reads what they are watching on television, and what they are eating for supper every night, and what they are teaching their kids and what they are thinking in bed, and basically nutso wacko stuff when you get down to it — but they are definitely out there, and they read this paranoid, utility-conspiracy stuff in Mother Jones Magazine and the like and they believe it. The question is, should they pay extra for the special treatment they demand, or should the utility just suck it up (and bill all its customers the cost of doing so), or should they be offered only the same meter treatment as everyone else and go on believing their brain waves are being manipulated . . . . ?

  4. re: ” these are people who believe the meters contain technology that reads what they are watching on television, and what they are eating for supper every night, and what they are teaching their kids and what they are thinking in bed, and basically nutso wacko stuff when you get down to it — but they are definitely out there, ‘

    so this is the bulk of the ones who oppose?


    double WOW!!!

  5. I have to say – … in an era… where information and knowledge has become so freely available – so easy to pursue and obtain… so we can truly develop a deeper understanding of the world around us… and make our own lives better for it…..

    – what do we see?

    more and more conspiracy theory…

    something incredibly simple and powerful – like knowing how much electricity one consumes – and in turn how to affect it to your own benefit – we instead slide into – an almost cave-like luddite world.. of self-imposed ignorance and suspicion – over clear and obvious facts and realities…

  6. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the people wondering whether smart meters can spy on you.

    The electrical appliances in your home have load signatures. These load signatures can be analyzed to determine which devices are operating at any given time. Even the Congressional Research Service has its concerns (from the Pittsburg Post-Gazette:

    *** It may seem odd to worry about whether Big Brother is watching you toast your bagel. But the government itself acknowledges that smart meters can be a surveillance tool.

    “If law enforcement officers obtained near-real time data on a consumer’s electricty usage … their ability to monitor household activities would be amplified significantly,” reported a 2012 study by the Congressional Research Service.

    That’s in part because each appliance has a distinctive electric heartbeat that meters can track. Your refrigerator may have a low steady pulse, while baking a cake may spike the needle like a temblor along the San Andreas fault. “By combining appliance usage patterns,” the Congressional study found, “an observer could discern the behavior of occupants in a home over a period of time.” ***

    Some of you may say that you don’t care if your usage of specific electrical appliances in known to the power company. Would you care if that data was sold to enterprises to better target advertising to you? Would you care if the data could let the electric company know what television shows (or internet videos) you were watching? Ridiculous you say? Maybe not …

    Luckily for us in Virginia we have two exemplary organizations protecting us from the possible hazards of smart meter surveillance – Dominion and the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond. That makes me feel very safe.

  7. good GAWD Don… YES the govt CAN use a StingRay for your cell phone and I’m quite sure bug you garage opening or put bugs all of your house –

    but good GAWD man… they’re gonna come get you for toasting your bagel?

    you CONFIRM the fear here that we ARE regressing into cave-dwelling luddites surrounded by modern technology!!!

    • As the active participant on this blog with the longest tenure in the technology industry I find it more than odd that you call me a Luddite.

      Here is a partial list of the potential abuses of smart meter data:

      • Larry:

        What you fail to imagine is the power of combined technologies. Smart meter data, in and of itself, may not be an overwhelming risk to people’s privacy (or, it might be). An AI application that plays chess at various levels against human opponents may not a source of concern. Maybe the Federal government is justified in building the NSA’s Utah Data Center where (from Wired Magazine) “Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.”.

        Let’s start with government data collection. The first (already realized) risk is that the data will be hacked by others outside the government. from the Snowden Affair to the OPM fiasco this is a reality not just a hypothetical risk.

        Snowden copied an estimated 1.7M documents (many classified) from the NSA vault. So far, it is estimated that he has released 1% of what he took. Here is a snippet of what was in the 1% …

        “The NSA, the CIA and GCHQ spied on users of Second Life, Xbox Live and World of Warcraft, and attempted to recruit would-be informants from the sites, according to documents revealed in December 2013. Leaked documents showed NSA agents also spied on their own “love interests,” a practice NSA employees termed LOVEINT. The NSA was shown to be tracking the online sexual activity of people they termed “radicalizers” in order to discredit them.”

        Please re-read the section that says NSA agents also spied on their own love interests.

        Yes Larry – that’s your wonderful, benevolent, motherly / fatherly, warmly embracing do-good government.

        And you want to give them yet more of your personal data?

        All of this might be manageable (or might not be) but for the rise of AI, At least the NSA agents could only track the online sexual activity of their own love interests because that took manpower, judgement and a human ability to understand the difference between Victoria’s Secrets and Ashley Madison. Even the NSA only has so many people to understand the results – even with powerful analytic tools.

        AI could change all that.

        In most cases, technology futurists over-estimate the speed of technological change. Recently, that has not been the case. The futurists were, in retrospect, pessimists. In 1995 or so things like useful computer vision, natural language conversation and autonomous vehicles were seen as 30 years away by the reliably optimistic futurists. They became reality in less than 20 years – mostly due to advances in AI, machine learning, cognitive science, etc.

        What do you think will happen when advanced AI meets the vast ocean of your private data being stored by corporations and government?

        There are a number of other Luddites who have become concerned about AI – perhaps you know of some of these throwbacks – Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk?

  8. Privacy in this day of “big data” and identity theft is a serious concern. But, I don’t agree that we have a right to total anonymity. Example: down in Mathews County, VA, where I spend some spare time, they recently implemented street-naming and house numbers to permit faster EMS response times. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have refused to allow house numbers to be posted at their driveways because of the invasion of their privacy and spying concerns. Really! What’s a house number for but HEH HEH HEH SPYING?? I grew up in a city and thankfully grew up without that fear, or fear of party line phones, or fear of planes flying overhead. We had phone books that listed just about everyone, and the City Directory for more detailed stuff about your neighbors, and folks volunteered all that information about themselves. And undoubtedly all those public listings resulted on occasion in some unsolicited advertising. But so what? You could find one other, and you had nosy neighbors, and you didn’t live totally alone.

    • The law has often made a distinction between what we knowingly expose to the public or a segment thereof and what we don’t. A simple example was a pen register device – old technology that captured the dialed digits of a phone call. Because a person voluntarily exposed those digits to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), no search warrant was required to place a pen register on a telephone line.

      In contrast, court orders have generally been required to tap into a phone conversation, because they are generally private.

      Ditto for what one throws in the trash versus what one keeps in one’s study at home.

      I think there is a difference between what is displayed on an electric meter, which is visible to anyone authorized to be on the property where the meter is located and information about what appliances and devices are operating and when.

      • Your point is valid as a matter of law. I would add, the non-utility person who could get close enough to your old-style electric meter to read it would generally be either a trespasser or a permittee. Electronic data from a ‘smart meter’ plainly carries information off the premises that did not used to leave it.

        But that is not the end of the discussion. No electric company I am aware of would dare collect or release, much less sell, “information about what appliances and devices are operating and when,” as the laws and utility commission regulations in most States are quite strict about maintaining the privacy of customer data including the identity of customers, duration of residence, amounts of consumption etc. The idea of a utility collecting that sort of thing for sale would have once seemed ludicrous. What’s changed, of course, is the collection and analysis of massive amounts of data by Google and some of its competitors for the purpose of “smart” advertising. People have not only NOT rebelled, they have embraced Google, praising it for “free” ISP services and maps and messenger service and the Android OS, etc. That has made a lot of companies that used to assume selling such info was next to treason, rethink, what asset are we wasting here? But for now, no utility I am aware of is allowed to sell customer info, or would dare try to do so without regulatory permission.

        • But usage of Google is quite voluntary. Usage of dominion for power in its monopoly region is not voluntary. Dominion is a government-granted monopoly. Any decision by Dominion, or the Commonwealth of Virginia, to mandate smart meters which extract detailed data on activities inside the home is an invasion of privacy.

          As for regulatory permission – our General Assembly is only too happy to trade permission for gifts and political contributions. For example, every species of fish in Virginia is regulated by the scientists of the Virginia Marine Fisheries Commission except one – menhaden. Why? Because the Omega Protein Company of Texas likes to annihilate the menhaden schools of the Chesapeake Bay and Omega Protein pays tribute to the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond while menhaden do not. Again this session a bill was brought forward to move regulation of the one fish regulated by the General Assembly to the VMFC (where all other fisheries regulation is performed). The bill was killed in committee by voice vote as the chicken**** cowards we send to Richmond lacked the courage to even affix their individual names to the decision. Meanwhile, HB151 made an effort to get the General Assembly to actually regulate menhaden fishing with a bill that ” Prohibits fishing for menhaden with purse nets (i) in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries within one mile of mean low water and (ii) within three miles of shoreline of Virginia Beach extending to the North Carolina border.” It also was killed in committee.

          If little old Texas-based Omega Protein can manipulate our General Assembly to make an exception of a single fish for oversight and then refuse to oversee the harvest of that fish what do you think Dominion will be able to do?

          • DonR, evidently I’m not as much an early riser type as you, especially after a night of watching those darned R. “debaters” — but enjoyed your post about “potential abuses” this morning. No, I would not agree that ‘Luddites’ is an appropriate descriptive; but there is the potential there for someone without much education succumbing to a paralyzing fear of “those people” in our society who have more information about you than you have about them. What to do about it? The scary truth is, Big Data’s dominance over our daily lives, the marketing and sales of goods and arts and books and other intellectual content, seems, a la brave new world and all that, just about inevitable. So, if we can’t stop it, how do we contain it, even live with it? Highly recommend Jaron Lanier’s recent collection of essays, “Who Owns The Future”, for perspective; there’s a good summary in a Wikipedia review with that name. Meanwhile, on the invasion of privacy spectrum, I just don’t see the typical utility’s smart meter as much of a threat , the responsible US utility isn’t about to grant access to that data knowingly, and irresponsible access isn’t likely because isolated snips of the data aren’t worth that much. I’m much more concerned about invasion of my privacy through email ‘hacking’ and access to my phone messages/apps/location-data and ‘leakage’ from social media than from someone surreptitiously monitoring my smart electric meter. It seems to me that modern, complex, interactive urban life simply comes with a certain risk of loss of privacy and that’s a choice we make when we live that way. And yes, I’ll consciously trade access to my internet usage for all those ‘free’ Google services.

        • This discussion, especially the part about the desire to obtain personal information to target advertising, reminds me of a lunch discussion I had back in the mid-1990s with a friend of mine. We had been doing some work together on some cell phone service issues. He was the marketing guy.

          He told me that information that would enable a company to target advertising (mass customization) was the most valuable information that he, as a marketer, could get. He figured companies would likely pay the consumer for such information. He wasn’t too far off the mark.

  9. Acbar is right in my view. there is a difference between irrational fears of the unknown – that folks don’t know in part because they do not inform themselves on the technology and the issues.

    that’s self imposed ignorance in a world that has admittedly gotten more complex – but it’s the gig – you do it or you relegate yourself to a 21st century cave dweller.

    there is also the concept of proportionality. If you have a cell phone – you can be “tracked” you actually have to agree when you acquire it to the “terms of service” The same goes with virtually any service you sign up for – even telephone landlines or internet service and all the services that, they, in turn provide.

    Not agreeing to 911 standards and designation is even more extreme – you’d actually endanger your own life and/or members of your family or even people who might visit you including service repair folks really? Even when they can track the location of any cell phone on you property anyhow?

    • “Acbar is right in my view. there is a difference between irrational fears of the unknown – that folks don’t know in part because they do not inform themselves on the technology and the issues.”

      It’s the people who understand the technology that are the most worried.

      Please review the board of directors of EPIC:

      Do they seem like people who don’t understand technology to you. If you are bored you can also review the extensive board of advisers.

      Here’s the first item in EPIC’s consumer privacy bill of rights:

      “Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.”

    • Here’s an example of combined consumer data collection …

      Did you even realize this was happening?

      Let’s say the retailer knows that you have started to try on slacks with size 42″ waist instead of size 40″ waist. How much would your health insurer pay to know that?

  10. Don – do you think the folks that are opposed to 911 addressing or smart meters know SPECIFICALLY the things to be concerned about or do you think it’s more akin to paranoia ?

    I GET what you are talking about and yes there ARE real privacy issues and real issues about grabbing personal data and using it inappropriately or even illegally.

    Do you think the folks who are opposed to smart meters or 911 addressing are going to cite the EPIC or the Guardian article with respect to government?

    do you THINK that Govt itself is engaged in similar schemes to grab your data and use it for nefarious and non-economic purposes – to target you for a non-criminal purpose?

    come on Don – privacy issues involving the private sector are totally legitimate – but INFORMED people KNOW – the actual specific areas of risk and what they can do to protect themselves and what they cannot because it’s a part of the agreement to terms of service TOS ?

    so YES – the govt CAN – TRACK YOU with a cell phone or an EZ-Pass or even the use of your credit card and MORE but do you really equate that with the types of things that the private sector is doing with data?

    are you distinguishing between irrational and paranoid fears of non-specific natures – just the “unknown” or are you talking about people who are informed about specific risks and that’s the basis of their concerns?

    • Certainly there are times when living in a cave, or a cabin in the woods, is more appealing than amidst urban traffic and cell phones and crowded stores and subways and similar hassles. I don’t live alone because it’s boring, as well as expensive to live comfortably in total isolation. I’ve made that choice and it doesn’t keep me awake at night. Also I do enjoy the outdoors and have a family place to “get away to” occasionally.

      But for those who wish it and can afford it, the question is, can we participate in modern urban life while maintaining complete privacy, or are these goals mutually exclusive?

      If you know the answer, do tell!

  11. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive but if you truly want to live a reclusive 20th century style life -you’ll have to get yourself to the Canadian, Australian or other frontiers.

    I you drive a car and have a cell phone and have an internet connection, use credit cards, etc – it’s a different world than it was 50 years ago.

    And yes – if you’ve done something to cause the govt to come looking for you – they’re probably going to find you … but in terms of the govt keeping unprovoked tabs on folks – I think having that fear without specifics you can point to – is more towards irrational and paranoid.

    and again – differentiate between the govt knowing where you and everyone else is – versus what the private sector is doing to “track” you as a potential customer or client is a bit loony in my view.

    doing taxes – you’ll see folks who have not filed their taxes in years and there quite often is nothing more than letters to the house… there are no folks listening to your phone or sampling your internet or electricity or phone… etc.. at least from the ones I’ve talked to.

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