Your meter is watching you. Reality or fantasy?
We can hear here and there that smart meters could be a breach into our private lives and that, especially through the analysis of electricity consumption, it would soon be possible to spy all our moves. Reality or fantasy?
Electricity meter manufacturers, an industry usually quiet, are in turmoil. In less than 10 years, more than 400 million smart meters will be installed around the world. It is a necessity for balance and management of transmission and distribution of electricity but also a challenge for an industry unknown of the general public.
Thus, the electrical meter, billing instrument hidden in the shadows of our basement, is poised to become a central communication gateway between consumers and utilities.
Like any new communication medium, it raises hopes, fears and finally fantasies.
What are the real communication capabilities of smart meters?
Smart meters include, besides the classical metering parts, an electronic communication component ensuring the transfer of measurement data to hubs located upstream of the network in substations. These long-range communications use physical layers like radio or PLC, IPv6 or proprietary transport layers and metering application profiles like Zigbee Smart Energy 2.0 or DLSM/COSEM.
These communication layers were primarily defined to meet the technical constraints of protocols, security and data rates set by energy operators and not at all according end users needs.
No wonder that, compared to some smart objects around us, like cellular phones or computers, these smart meters are very poor communicators:
- very high latency of at least a few seconds.
- bandwidth of a few kB/s (Linky G1, narrowband PLC) to tens of kB/s (Linky G3 or long range radio) in the best case.
- built-in memory only for the storage of information such as tariffs, load curves recorded once a day, every hour or, at best, every 30 minutes for a few dozen curves a day and for a limited period of time.
When it comes to communication capability, the privacy threat therefore seems very weak. If we look in contrast to the data collected, the problem remains.
Indeed, except the question, still poorly addressed by legal authorities, of who owns the data and with what security, there is the problem of its exploitation. The fear that comes up most often is the belief that one could be able to determine the behavior of subscribers only by analyzing their load curves.
Let’s take a closer look.
If it is indeed possible to extract information from the load curve, like of course disaggregated consumption accumulated over a certain period of time, do not imagine predicting what people are exactly doing at a precise moment. Indeed, many usages such as heating, HVAC, refrigerators, are independent of the instantaneous behavior. And for those who reflect our actions, switching light in the first place, but also starting using some appliances, they are very difficult to detect in a load curve sampled every second and virtually impossible with a 30 minute sampling rate. In addition, a low energy profile does not mean you are not at home neither a high one means you are having a party with your friends !
In addition, current disaggregation algorithms use the whole 24 hours duration of the load curve and are therefore not suitable for real-time identification.
An black-hat hacker could one day hack your meter but will be quite unable, with only a load curve sampled every 30 minutes, to immediately determine your presence or your absence from home.
Conclusion: the fear of smart meters is more a fantasy due to the lack of information than a reality. Its denial, however, is real and is mainly due to the poor education programs delivered by utilities. The smart meters are often imposed to consumers and this without any actual perception of significant added values. This leads to fears, amalgams and exploitations by all types of opponents (the largest in bad faith is the so-called danger to the health of the radio waves emitted by PLC meters that produce, however, far less radiation than any cellular phone).
Finally, if the point is to raise the fear of being monitored, why not then discuss first the communication technologies we’re breathing in, such as smartphones or computers, which collect far more information about our privacy that will never be able to collect our electricity meter.
If you’re looking after Big Brother, don’t look in your electric meter; search first in your cell phone or in your computer.
* In early 2000, Paul was the first to develop and patent an algorithm of load curve disaggregation able to identify nearly 80% of the electricity consumption of housings.
This algorithm used a 24 hours load curve sampled every 0.5s.