Network Tasman: “There are no privacy concerns” with “smart meters” (Yeah right!)
Network Tasman’s website makes the statement that “There are no privacy concerns with smart meters”.*
The company further claims that:
“The sole reason for installing an advanced meter is to increase the efficiency of electricity usage in your home and across the electricity network. All meter reading data is in code and can only be read by the smart grid system computers. No other data (eg voice or video) can be transmitted.”
Let’s take the company at its word that its aim in installing “smart meters” is to increase the efficiency of electricity use in homes and in the electricity network in general (as well as to provide a means of measuring electricity consumption in a way that is convenient for the Network Tasman.) Network Tasman is run by a community trust and I imagine that everyone involved with the company is well-intentioned.
However, while Network Tasman may not have an interest in violating your privacy by mis-using data gained through “smart meters”, the same may not be true of other parties who may gain access to data obtained through “smart meters”. Overseas, “smart meters” have been shown to be vulnerable to hacking. (See this post: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/latest-news/bbc-smart-meters-need-to-be-harder-to-hack/) What’s more, by their very nature, “smart meters” accumulate a lot of data about electricity use, and they are designed to transmit data at regular intervals. This information that can be gained after data from smart meters has been de-aggregated can be quite detailed, as shown at this link: http://smartmeterpowerstruggle.wordpress.com/
Overseas experience has shown that in some cases, data from “smart meters” may be sufficiently detailed as to allow people with access to this information to know what particular TV programme you may be watching. (See: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/latest-news/is-your-smart-meter-spying-on-you/ )
Suffice, I think, to say that there are privacy issues with “smart meters”, despite what Network Tasman’s website claims.
In NZ, two electricity companies (Genesis and its subsidiary EnergyOnline) claim to own the data obtained by “smart meters” in their customers’ homes and to have the right to supply this data to “third parties”. (See this link for details: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/latest-news/is-your-smart-meter-spying-on-you/)
Most of these companies’ customers probably have no idea that their privacy (and potentially home security, should this data fall into the wrong hands) is being compromised in this way. What do Genesis and EnergyOnline plan to do with this information? Sell it to other companies, perhaps? This would potentially create a new revenue stream for these electricity retailers.
NB: Genesis and EnergyOnline also have it in their Terms and Conditions that customers must accept a “smart meter”, see this link for details: http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/latest-news/smart-meter-installed-without-permission-headaches-result-smart-meter-removed-headaches-disappear/
Unfortunately, the privacy issues may not go away if the transmission chip (also known as a modem) is removed from a “smart meter” to prevent it from transmitting data (via microwave radiation) back to the lines company and/or retailer.
Many “smart meters” also include an infrared optical port, which generally looks like a red light on the front of the meter. When a meter reader comes to a home or business of a non-transmitting “smart meter” s/he obtains information about electricity use via a connection established between portable equipment supplied by the metering company and the optical port. The information that can potentially be exchanged through this optical port is potentially quite detailed, as was demonstrated by an FBI investigation into “smart meter” hacking in Puerto Rico in 2009. (The hacking cost utilities companies millions and millions of dollars.) According to the website http://krebsonsecurity.com/ the hacking was most likely accomplished by establishing a connection with the “smart meter” via its optical port, after which its software was illegally re-programmed to result in savings for the customer.
I think it likely that when a meter reader “reads” a “smart meter” a large amount of detailed information about the customer’s electricity use is transferred to the company through the connection between the optical port and the meter reader’s portable equipment. Whether this data is as detailed as the data that is accumulated by the electricity company when a “smart meter” regularly transmits data about electricity use (which can be as often as every half hour with some NZ companies) I do not know. However, “smart meters” have the ability to store data, so it is not inconceivable that a lot of data could be transmitted when the optical port is accessed by a meter reader.
Under the circumstances, I think it would be wise to assume that a “smart meter” which has had its transmission chip removed is still a threat to privacy and home security. It is certainly better than a “smart meter” which is transmitting in real time; however, if there are regular patterns of activity in a home (i.e people work 9-5 jobs and leave for work and return home at regular – and therefore predictable times – each week day and/or have regular commitments out-of-home in the evening) these patterns may be reflected in data that is accumulated by their electricity company (or other company that has access to metering data).
I would welcome contact from anyone who has information about technical matters that relate to the topics discussed in this post. You can reach me through http://www.stopsmartmeters.org.nz/contact-us/
*In case Network Tasman Ltd removes the statement from its website, here is a screenshot showing the statement: