EFF: Data Collected From Utility Smart Meters Should Be Protected By The Fourth Amendment

from the I-always-feel-like-somebody's-watching-me dept

For years, electric utilities have increasingly embraced smart meters. Roughly 65 million of the devices have been installed in the United States over the last few years, with 57 million of them in consumer homes. The meters provide innumerable benefits to utility companies, often delivering an ocean of new remote access and monitoring tools to better manage the network and reduce meter reading truck rolls. The benefits to consumers (outside of accuracy) have been less notable, including interference with some home routers, as well as the fact that a number of models have been shown to be relatively easily hacked.

In addition to hackability, the sheer volume of data being gobbed up by utility companies tells an awful lot about you (when you wake, when you sleep, when you're home or away). This has, at times, sparked outrage from locals in places like Naperville, Illinois, where, since 2011, meter opponents have been fighting the intrusive nature of the devices:

"...Opponents say the meters provide so much information that everyone from cops to criminals to marketing departments can learn when people are home and what they do when they're there. Last year, the anti-meter movement fell just short of collecting enough signatures to place a question on the ballot asking residents to decide whether the devices should be removed. They also have a pending federal lawsuit against the city alleging that their constitutional right to due process has been violated."

That was 2013. In 2015, the city of Naperville was forced to settle with one smart meter opponent after she sued the city and four of its police officers for violating her constitutional rights. That same year, another man sued the city over what he claimed was an unwarranted search into his home. But last fall, a federal district court in Illinois declared that Americans can't reasonably expect any privacy in the data collected by these devices, and utility collection of it is completely beyond the protection of the Fourth Amendment.

That case is currently on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. And the EFF and Privacy International have asked the Seventh Circuit if they can weigh in on the case. In a blog post, the EFF points out that the court's decision was based on a misunderstanding of how the technology actually works. Basically, the court assumed that these new meters work in exactly the same way as their older counterparts, ignoring the significantly-expanded data collected:

"The court was convinced that data collected from smart meters is no different from data collected from analog meters, in terms of what it reveals about what’s going on inside the home. But that’s simply not the case. Smart meters not only produce far more data than analog meters—those set at collecting data in 15-minute intervals produce 2,880 meter readings per month compared to just one monthly reading for analog meters—but the data is also far more intimate. A single monthly read of cumulative household energy use does not reveal how energy is being used throughout the course of a day. But smart meter data does. And its time granularity tells a story about what is going on inside the home for anyone who wishes to read it."

As we've seen with cellular location data, once companies collect this information, it's often sold to any number of third parties who may be using this data in ways that aren't always in your best interests. But as Tim Cushing has occassionally noted, getting companies to be forthcoming about what they're collecting and who they may be selling it to is sometimes difficult, with at least one company suing to thwart transparency efforts on the subject in Seattle. And as Glyn Moody has also noted, this collision between privacy rights and utility data collection on the smart meter front isn't just an American phenomenon.


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 5:53am

    So, you said you weren't home eh? Silly customer. - Stalking Telemarketing Companies

    It's shocking how these people are turning useful things into equipment to avoid like the plague.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 6:29am

    Off the grid

    The Amish played the long game and their prescience is paying off.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 6:47am

    I wouldn't call those meters accurate in the slightest. Having your monthly bill 1000% times higher is not a benefit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 7:02am

    As far as I can see, the third party doctrine has been distorted way beyond its original intent. What was meant to allow a third party to pass on evidence of suspicious activity, and allow the police to use that evidence has been twisted into a right for the police to demand information without a warrant, or even reasonable cause.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 7:08am

      Re:

      "As far as I can see, the third party doctrine has been distorted way beyond its original intent."

      Wrong, this is exactly the intent.

      "But last fall, a federal district court in Illinois declared that Americans can't reasonably expect any privacy in the data collected by these devices, and utility collection of it is completely beyond the protection of the Fourth Amendment."

      The Fourth is not predicated upon people "reasonably expecting" anything. People do not have to expect, reasonably or otherwise, that their data is protected by the 4th, it simply just is.

      The logic on display here is every bit a part of the anti gun lobby.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Cdaragorn (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 8:22am

        Re: Re:

        While I agree with the intent of your statement, your conclusion cannot be correct.

        If the 4th protected all data about me no matter what, then many obviously reasonable things would suddenly become illegal for obviously ridiculous reasons. For instance, it would be illegal to track when I visit your store simply because it was information about me. It is reasonably accepted fact that anything you do in public is known by the public.

        The problem with this case is that the information is revealing things about what I do in a place that is obviously private and personal.

        Whether or not I can reasonably expect what I'm doing to be private is a reasonable and necessary interpretation of the 4th's protections. Now whether their definition of reasonable in any given instance matches ours is an issue that still needs some serious resolving.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    kenan, 3 Mar 2017 @ 7:07am

    mobilforum

    www.cepstar.net sitemizde ücretsiz android samsung rom root mtk zilsesi launcher oyun uygulama program ile hizmetinizdeyiz

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    timmaguire42 (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 7:10am

    The whole point of the smart meter is to cope with the effects of government created shortages. Cheap energy is the most important thing we can provide for the poor. Today's environmentalism (not least the insatiable god of Global Warming) creates fake crises in order to drive up the cost of energy so instead of being safe and comfortable, our poor will shiver in the dark.

    Environmentalism is the reason government officials give when they want to search your trash, when they want to see where you drive and when, and now when you wake up and when you watch TV. Next it will be which room you are in and even when you flush the toilet and what it is you're flushing. (Think smart water meters aren't coming?) All the things our concept of basic human rights tells us the government shouldn't do, it does in the name of environmentalism and the progressives cheer them on.

    Complaints about the 4th amendment dangers of smart meters, while legitimate, miss the real issue. Progress!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 7:31am

      Re:

      We got smart water meters last fall. Funny enough, the electric company hasn't followed suit... yet. It took the water company a week to find my old water meter as the idiots put it at the choke point of a run-off so it gets buried under two feet of dirt every time it rains. I can understand why they were happy to replace MY water meter with a smart one... no more having to dig it out of two feet of dirt every few months.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 7:52am

      Re:

      "Today's environmentalism (not least the insatiable god of Global Warming) creates fake crises"

      Really. When are you going to admit we have a real problem? When your land is ravaged by insane hurricanes or when you feel the pain of extended droughts? Just curious where in the spectrum of environmental chaos you are.

      "Environmentalism is the reason government officials give when they want to search your trash, when they want to see where you drive and when, and now when you wake up and when you watch TV."

      I suggest a psychiatrist. If anything, the US are far from the vanguard of environmental care.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 7:55am

        Re: Re:

        In retrospect you could be exercising your comedic side in which case you totally fooled me. So I marked your comment as funny!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Cdaragorn (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 8:32am

        Re: Re:

        When are you going to admit we have a real problem?

        How about when you admit that you don't have the evidence to show that the very real climate change is being even significantly contributed to by us?

        Just to be clear, I would love to have a good honest conversation with anyone about it. I would be happy if we could find proof of exactly what we're doing and what we can change that would help the planet. It's just that all I ever see are insults and hatred thrown about. That will never get us anywhere.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 8:48am

        Re: Re:

        My take on global warming? Yeah, it is happening. Yeah, humans sped it up. So what? It was going to warm sooner or later, and then it will cool. Deal with it.

        Now, in dealing with it, who pays for that? If the US cut emissions to zero, would it make a difference? China, India and the 3rd world will keep on keeping on. So if the US cuts emissions to zero, it still happens, and we harm our way of life. No thanks. Should my tax dollars pay for the poor countries? Should my tax dollars help the 3rd world get water? Those are different questions. Europe has a much bigger problem with this than the US, they have more cities on a coast, they go into an ice age faster if the Atlantic conveyer stops, their ability to grow food becomes challenging.

        From the US point of view, if we can't stop it (which I don't think we can no matter what we do) why hurt ourselves before the pain needs to be felt?

        I do believe we need to get off oil, but for reasons other than climate change. Screw oil and build a wall around the Middle East. Also, fracking causes earthquakes and contaminates water, so we do need to find better alternatives.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          sorrykb (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 9:37am

          Re: Re: Re:

          My take on global warming? Yeah, it is happening. Yeah, humans sped it up. So what? It was going to warm sooner or later, and then it will cool.

          From The Copenhagen Diagnosis:

          While global warming can be stopped, it cannot easily be reversed due to the long lifetime of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Solomon et al. 2009; Eby et al. 2009). Even a thousand years after reaching a zero-emission society, temperatures will remain elevated, likely cooling down by only a few tenths of a degree below their peak values.

          AC also wrote:

          From the US point of view, if we can't stop it (which I don't think we can no matter what we do) why hurt ourselves before the pain needs to be felt?

          Because while we can't stop global warming entirely, we still have time to mitigate it.

          Because global warming will exacerbate international and regional conflict.

          Because the U.S. economy is connected with the rest of the world, and isolationism would have catastrophic consequences.

          Because the U.S. is in fact already being directly affected by global warming.

          And finally...

          Because we shouldn't be selfish assholes.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 10:09am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            First, how this post got turned into a climate change discussion, not sure, but that isn't a bad thing.

            Who is the "we" in the we still have time to mitigate it? Is it just the US? India, China and developing nations will not slow down their emissions emissions, so why should this worry us? Again, the US could cut to zero and nothing would change. What is the point?

            I agree, change brings difficulties, but why should the US dig the hole before it needs to be dug?

            My best advise? Don't buy any property in Miami.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 10:19am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Because the US is responsible for somewhere around 16% of global CO2 emissions while housing roughly 4.33% of the global population.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 11:20am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            That doesn't mean that if the US cuts its emissions to zero anything changes. China is an environmental nightmare, bad air quality and bad water quality (their 2 largest rivers won't be able to support life soon.)Do you expect them to reduce their emissions? Do you expect developing countries to reduce their emissions? I don't.

            And air pollution is different from emissions. Yes, we want clean air (and in fact our air is cleaner than it has been in many years, which is why you don't actually see blood moons anymore.)Releasing Co2 into the atmosphere doesn't harm humans like what is considered "air pollution".

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 10:38am

      Re:

      "Cheap energy is the most important thing we can provide for the poor."
      I agree. Beyond the initial investment, many green energies are essentially free. Just because a solar panel warranty is "only" 30 years, it doesn't mean it stops working. Yes, the complete system may need repairs and maintenance, but so does the current infrastructure.

      Perhaps you would agree that there are national health benefits to clean energy. Air and water pollution from today's energy sources are linked to breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, and cancer. The investment in clean energy would pay for itself in health care savings.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 9:37am

    Is the court really this stupid or did someone accept a bribe? Thats what I want to know!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 10:45am

    As battery tech falls in price this should be a way around it if the courts fail:

    Electric In from utility w/meter >>Smart battery charger>>batteries>>inverter/house fuse box>>feeds house.

    This is for a system of batteries in the 30kwhr or so range for a standard house. Might need a bit more or a bit less storage depending on use. Assuming enough battery storage for a typical days use then you are effectively blind to outside parties while running off of batteries.

    In this scenario I can control when the batteries are charged. The only thing the utility will see is when the drain for battery charging starts, stops and for how many kilowatts.

    Not only will you save money on your electric bill, you get privacy for free.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 2:34pm

      Re:

      Those massive batteries aren't cheap.

      It would probably be cheaper to run excess electricity during off-peak hours to maintain a consistent draw.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Andrew D. Todd, 4 Mar 2017 @ 7:20am

        What Do They Really Know.

        Such a device as you imagine would be much smaller and cheaper than you might think. All you really want to cloak are your electronic devices and lights. The main domestic energy flows tend to be Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (what mechanical engineers call HVAC), and these are mostly driven by thermostats. Modern efficient lighting and electronics tend to be down around the noise level. Desktop equipment tends to eventually incorporate components designed for portable devices, such as LED screens.

        My father is boat fan, rather like the Water Rat in _The Wind In The Willows_. He has a sailing sloop, which he has modified into a rowboat, one suitable for going out rowing on the Pacific Ocean. Well, he wanted to be able to use his laptop computer while out on the boat, so I looked around and found him a device which converts 12 VDC automobile electric power into 110 VAC power, and he proposed to plug the device into a big storage battery, which could be periodically recharged from a generator at the marina. I believe he has since rigged a small solar panel to the battery. A laptop doesn't require much juice.

        What the electric company can probably discover, if you have an electric water heater, is when you take your shower. But they cannot know whether it is an evening shower or a morning shower, that is, before or after sleeping. There's enough "thermal momentum" in a resistance-heating system that I don't know whether washing one's hands would be enough to cycle the thermostat. You could always install a solar water-heater, or course.

        Your big-ticket essential electrical appliance is an air-conditioner or a thermostat, and that does run off the thermostat.

        I live in an apartment building, and we have electric water heaters, essentially because the landlord, twenty-some years ago, wanted each tenant to have his own utility bills, and settle them directly with the utility companies. This dictated all-electric services and appliances. A while back, some workmen can along and spliced electronic boxes into the water-heater cables. This gives the electric company the ability to shut down large numbers of water heaters, in order to temporarily mend a grid overload. It allows them some time to fire up standby plants. I suppose they could use the boxes for monitoring as well.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 2:35pm

    An Oracle consultant recently told me that the specific devices being used in a house can be inferred from the voltage data collected with smart meters. Fucking paracites.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 4:27pm

    Watch the 1944 movie "Gaslight"

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaslight_%281944_film%29

    The story depends upon the fact that a gaslight burning in the attic reduces the gas pressure for the rest of the house, thus dimming all of the gaslights.

    If this movie doesn't convince you about the information content of utility meter data for spying purposes, I don't know what will.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Tin-Foil-Hat, 6 Mar 2017 @ 3:43pm

    Smart Meter Obscurer/ Emergency backup

    Too bad you can't get a device that acts like a buffer between your personal power use and your smart meter. One day's worth of electricity could be stored and fed to the house so the data collected is obsfucated. It would also work as a backup in case there was a power outage.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Chris Turner, 26 Mar 2017 @ 3:14pm

    https://www.cnet.com/news/researchers-find-smart-meters-could-reveal-favorite-tv-shows/, researchers-find-smart-meters-could-reveal-favorite-tv-shows/ (1/24/2012)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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