EU watchdog agency warns of privacy issues with smart meters

Jun 13, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
Example of a smart meter in use in Europe. Image credit: Wikipedia.

(Phys.org) -- As utility companies the world over seek ways to wring more use out of the electricity they provide, new technology is introduced to better manage how that electricity is consumed and when. One such example is the idea of a smart grid where smart meters replace conventional meters at home and business sites which are connected to computers at a central site. The idea is that if energy consumption can be monitored in very near real-time, energy companies can better allocate resources and hopefully make the whole system more efficient. Unfortunately, as Giovanni Buttarelli, an assistant supervisor with the independent watchdog group European Data Protection Supervisor, points out in a new report, sometimes good intentions can give way to unexpected side effects and in this case it’s the possibility of smart sensors giving away private information about people as they go about their daily lives.

The idea of a has gained traction in recent years as utility companies face new constraints. Their job is to provide all the power that everyone in a given area may want or need, yet they are overseen by governmental agencies that work to keep prices down, while other agencies seek to force them to reduce carbon emissions, a difficult task to say the least when most rely on burning coal to produce their product. Smart grids using meters would allow power companies to see how much is being used and where, and then to allocate power based on those numbers. More could be sent where more is needed, less to where less is needed. The result would be more efficient distribution which hopefully helps to keep costs down for everyone.

The problem comes about, Buttarelli says, because might be a little too smart. He points out that readings coming from a smart meter can be analyzed by a computer to the extent that those looking at the data could discern not only when people are home or sleeping, but what type of electronics they have and use, including medical equipment. So sensitive are the meters and computers, that engineers can actually figure out which channel on a flat screen television is running in someone’s house. Because of this, there exists the risk that private user data could wind up in the hands of people or entities other than those at the power company. Burglars, for example, would love to know when a family is away on holiday, and those that sell things might like to know what electronic gadgets a family uses. The solution, Buttarellis says is to put laws in place forbidding utility companies from sharing such data before such a grid is put in place.

The report was written in response to a European Union’s commission announcing plans to implement a smart grid all across Europe by 2020.

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User comments : 3

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KBK
1 / 5 (1) Jun 13, 2012
To understand that there is a backdoor into personal information,and then slap a law on it to 'protect it', is a bit of a problem. the deal is that there is a hole in the systems and the fundamental hole needs to be repaired, otherwise it WILL be abused, repeat...WILL BE ABUSED.

This is indisputable and about 10,000 years of human history shows that. Leave a hole..and 'that which is nasty' piles on through said hole. Every time. Every time.

Thus, to fix the issue, the meters must be designed to not be able to obtain this information, in a real and physical sense, period. Not programming but a form of LCR or similar filtering which cannot sift through data in such a fine fashion. A implementation that says -in the mechanical real world- 'impossible'.

An actual brick wall that functions and is perfect, not a cover story of a law that will be meaningless to security agencies or whomever has access.

Otherwise..it is a lie to say that it will not be abused.
Controse
not rated yet Jun 13, 2012
Seems like a simple, easily enforced law would suffice. The smart meter should only be able to send data necessary and sufficient to do its job. How much power is being consumed at a given address averaged over some non real-time time interval, say a half and hour, would go a long way to help manage the power load but protect privacy. Essentially the hardware should be out of focus enough to protect privacy. This must be a hardware not a software limitation.
Vendicar_Decarian
not rated yet Jun 14, 2012
What can you conclude about how I spent my days from the following power consumption charts.

https://docs.goog...zcmlXS0E

"How much power is being consumed at a given address averaged over some non real-time time interval, say a half and hour, would go a long way to help manage the power load but protect privacy." - Controse