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Are smart meters real-time surveillance spies?

Mar 01, 20115 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Smart meters provide highly detailed energy-use data that law enforcement can use to bust indoor pot farmers. And that's only the tip of potential smart meter surveillance.

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.

High electricity usage does not always indicate a pot growing operation. DEA agent Marotta told the Columbus Dispatch of a federal investigation that surprised drug detectives. “We thought it was a major grow operation … but this guy had some kind of business involving computers. I don’t know how many computer servers we found in his home.”

Using the smart grid for surveillance to catch marijuana growing operations is far from a new concept. NeverGetBusted documented “fishing for pot” by “trolling for data” back in 2006. In 2007, the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog reported on Texas warrantless surveillance programs in which Austin Energy provided Austin Police with customer usage information to find indoor pot farms.

But according to the Baltimore Sun, pot growers use pirated electricity by tapping and routing lines, unmetered, to their grow rooms. Smart meters can change that by identifying the undetected illegal power lines. Software will detect anomalies and electricity theft. British Columbia Hydro’s smart-meter expert Fiona Taylor told the Vancouver Sun, “This system will allow us to follow the flow of electricity from point to point. We will be able to see at a macro level what is happening.” By cutting back on the 3% of illegal electricity used by pot growers, BC Hydro expects smart meters to pay for themselves in under 10 years.

In comments via several online articles about using the smart grid to target indoor marijuana gardens, some people say that every minute a police department “wastes” by reading electricity consumption could have been used to fight “real” crime like murder.

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.

It is little wonder that privacy advocates call for robust privacy policies since the captured smart meter data can reveal an intimate and highly detailed look into people’s lives. Security experts also call to plug potential smart grid security risks. 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.

There is a great deal of good that smart grid technology can do, but it holds many potential privacy and security problems. Without strong privacy policies, smart meters could easily become be real-time surveillance spies.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.