Seattle smart-meter vendor says that if we know how their system works, the terrorists will win

Your interest in understanding the highly connected technological installation we’ve placed in your home is very suspicious.

Your enquiry has been noted, and will appear in your permanent record.


Good question. The explanation is something along the line “we wrote it in the law”.

1 Like

I’m not sure why this would be dismissed as ‘crazy talk’. It’s slightly hyperbolic(as appears to be common when telling the court that this is Real Serious Business, the same strategy is used by the company in demanding widespread redaction); but it’s essentially a request for “If you are going to bill us according to numbers generated by a black box and treated as authoritative, we ought to know what is going on inside the black box” and “As a privacy matter, we ought to know what sort of granularity the black box is capable of in measuring in-house activities and who gets a cut of those data and for what purposes”.

The first request seems a logical enough response to a shift from old style spinning-dial meters. It’s certainly conceivable that the old style meters could be (by malice or accident) slightly ‘skewed’(for or against the ratepayer) in terms of whether they rotate slightly faster or slightly slower than actual power consumption would dictate; but they are comparatively simple mechanisms, generally inside the customer’s premises and locked in tamper-evident housings, so there are substantial practical limits on the flexibility with which you can monkey with the results. An opaque box of proprietary software designed to receive firmware updates over the air at any time and report who-knows-exactly-what is markedly less predictable.

As for the privacy angle, I’d suspect that the sheer cost of the really cool stuff(like attempting to reconstruct what a laser printer is printing based on the noise its power supply is dumping back into the line) are probably not available, for cost reasons if nothing else; but a variety of different electrically powered devices have noticeably different power factor, line noise, duty cycle, and so on; and a suitably competent meter might well be capable of interesting things. Demanding information on what those are and aren’t seems reasonable enough.

More generally, even if the case can’t be made for a full dump of every last bit of the backend system; demanding assurances regarding that backend system having been suitably audited for security and reliability problems, especially as related to the parts that generate billing information or seek to infer household usage patters seems eminently reasonable. ‘Just Trust Us’ is not impressive if the results are going to be used to calculate your bills.


Same way Flint managed to charge for mandatory leaded water.

1 Like

That does seem kind of scummy to do. My interpretation of the rental fee is, if they can “rent” the meter to you this would lead me to believe that i can substitute their meter with a 3rd party one. Just how we’re able to do so with modems/routers. Obviously this is not the case, but i’m just thinking out loud.
Also the rental fee can be changed, i don’t know how it works there but here the utilities have to present a rate case every year to the local government and it details what they can and can’t charge for, how they can spend tax or fee related money, etc. So if customers decided that the utility, or even the customer, should pay for the meter only once then that can be presented and hopefully pushed through.
I work for a private gas utility and in our rate case we pay for all meters, the only cost the customer is responsible for is the cost to set the meter in the first place (which is a one time thing).

1 Like

Fees for meters are normal here, but the classical ones cost something like 2 EUR/month, the newfangled smart ones 5-10.

Well, your data request isn’t crazy, nor is it entirely unreasonable. My apologies for my speculation being so far off-base, and good luck getting some kind of answer.

That said, I stand by my characterization that statements like "sensors that monitor activities inside subscribers’ premises " are crazytalk. It’s the same FUD that’s been spouted about smart meters for the last decade, despite the fact that nobody has produced any evidence that they monitor anything other than the electricity that flows through them, and using that kind of language does your efforts more harm than good, in my opinion.

1 Like

Sure; and lose out on the benefits of proprietary FlexNet™ technology: an industry leader in licensed band RF AMI solutions! We have to save you from yourself there.

So if you are gonna pay more in rental fees than you save on usage, WTF is the point other than revenue generation for the power company?

As nice as it was never having to worry about oh it broke of the cable modem and the ‘rental’ was only like $3 I didn’t mind so much. Then when Comcast upped it to $5+ well guess what I can buy a new one every year and still save money over renting.

How long would you have to own your own meter for it to break even on the rental costs?

1 Like

the power company has no direct advantages. but manufactures of smart meters (think Siemens)


probably never - meters must be calibrated and verfied every 5 years (or so) and the meter has to be replaced every 10 years (again: or so). end user prices will be prohibitive.

1 Like

Apology accepted.

As for your assertion that the statement “sensors that monitor activities inside subscribers’ premises” is crazytalk: That is precisely what they do. Sure, most of us assume that they only monitor aggregated energy usage. In reality, they monitor it in real-time, revealing when people are home and what devices are in use. Like you, I have seen no evidence that they monitor anything other than the electricity that flows through them, but we have no guarantee of such.

If that is all they should do, then we need assurances that this is all they do now or will ever do. Why are utilities so resistant to putting such guarantees in place? Why are we barred from verifying that these devices do what they are reported to do and only do that?

Scope-creep is rampant in technology and surveillance. When electrical meters went from devices that were sampled once per billing period to devices that monitor our activities inside of our homes (granted, at this time likely just a very limited set of activities) and communicate results of that monitoring to remote locations, they became surveillance devices. At this time, they are likely mostly benign surveillance devices, but it is still surveillance. It is no business of City of Seattle whether I am at home turning on the lights or not.

Real-time information about my home’s energy consumption would be useful to me. I would like to be able to get that information directly from my electrical meter. I do not want that information slurped up by the City (tapped by anyone with the know-how to circumvent whatever poor network security the vendors are hiding–e.g., NSA, Chinese hackers, etc.) and stored away in case it’s useful. If they want information about what I’m doing with the energy I purchase, they can ask me.

If people want to share with their government–who in this case admit they know so little about the technology that they cannot determine what is a trade secret (Sensus claim that whether they use encryption or not is such)–then people should be offered the opportunity to share that information. This should be foisted upon us. Now that it is, we have every reason to demand that we be allowed to verify that it does what it is supposed to do and is well-secured against attacks.

1 Like

Caution, wall-o-text follows. Skip to the end for the short version

Putting aside tampering and physical accidents, that electro-mechanical meters can be inaccurate isn’t “conceivable”, it’s a simple fact. They’re physical devices manufactured in the real world. They’re always inaccurate. But that inaccuracy is inherent in the physical construction of the device, so it’s constant (wear and tear is negligible in the short term and extremely minor in the long term). It’s also measurable .

And, as I said, there isn’t a state in the US that doesn’t 1) have accuracy standards for electric meters; and 2) require utilities to prove that their meters meet those accuracy standards. Which means that every electric meter that is manufactured gets tested for accuracy by a device that is almost certainly required to be regularly certified by either the department of weights and measures or the state department that regulates public utilities, or both.

With respect to unintentional inaccuracy, a modern, fully solid state residential watthour meter, one of which is probably on your house right now, is no different. Nor is an electronic smart meter.

Again, electric meters can be, and are, tested before they are installed to ensure they perform within acceptable standards of accuracy. In most (maybe all, I dunno) states, if a customer complains to the regulatory agency, the utility has to remove the meter and test it, and make the test results available to the agency and/or customer.

And yeah, the Volkswagen fiasco has shown that manufacturers can rig non-public proprietary software to game tests, but that doesn’t apply here. First and foremost because unlike the VW situation, it is trivially easy to detect. Anyone who suspects shenanigans can install their own electric meter after the utility meter and can compare the numbers on their bill to the numbers on their meter. Second, the meter manufacturer has no incentive to do it - extra revenue from monkeyed meters doesn’t go into their pockets, it goes to the utility. The only way they see any benefit from it is if they are in collusion with the utility.

Is it possible? Sure, yeah, I guess, technically. Is it a real concern? If you think that a meter manufacturer who stands to lose the business of utilities in every state in the country, and likely many countries around the world would be willing to conspire with one utility that wants to make some extra cash by altering the software in a way that results in trivially easy to detect billing discrepancies, then yeah, it’s a real concern. I think most reasonable people would agree it’s not.

[quote=“fuzzyfungus, post:43, topic:78590”]
a variety of different electrically powered devices have noticeably different power factor, line noise, duty cycle, and so on; and a suitably competent meter might well be capable of interesting things.[/quote]

No. Just no.

First, this would require a device that records and stores usage and PF data in near-real time. Knowing how much energy was used over the course of an hour (for example) is useless, you’d need it in one second intervals or finer. This increases the required storage capacity of the device by three orders of magnitude. Actually, if you add PF in there, it’s probably closer to four. Imagine your home DVR. Now consider the cost to design and manufacture it so it fits under the glass dome of an electric meter along with all the other stuff that’s already there. Or the plastic housing. Whatever, you get the point.

“But wait, I have a thumb drive that’s like 64 gigabytes! It’s totally do-able”

Yeah, if you’re willing to add thirty or forty bucks to the cost of every single meter, it can be done. Finding 40 million spare dollars in the budget is somewhat unlikely, even for a large utility, and rate increases are a pretty big deal involving the PUC, the ratepayer advocate, and lots of lawyers, analysts and accountants. So that’s not going to happen. And a simple glance at the meters tech specs that are publicly available (and can be confirmed by simply removing an existing electric meter and opening it up) will show you that it’s not being done.

It’s not going to be done anytime soon, either, becasue even if it becomes a matter of pennies per device for all that storage, all that data also increases the communication time of the device by the nearly the same factor. So a meter that used to be able to communicate 24 hours worth of usage data in 5 seconds (which is almost certainly so fast as to be a wet dream to metering people) would require hours to communicate data for that same 24 hour period.

The internet tells me these Landis & Gyr meter communicates using a mesh network, relaying packets of data by hopping from meter to meter until it reaches some centralized endpoint, similar to the way the internet gets the data from Boing Boing to me. Imagine if something happened that added an additional 32kb of data to every single byte transmitted using TCP/IP, everywhere on the web, all the time. Now try to make it work using ZigBee. yeah, no.

Data storage? Usage info for million meters at 8760 hours is ~9 billion rows per year. Scale that up to 3600 sec/hr, let it run for three years, and you’re looking at a power company that needs to manage a database with ~ 1x10e14 rows of usage data. From a company that currently manages 12 reads per year per customer.

Is all this possible? Yeah, sure. Is it even remotely plausible? No. Not without enormous and expensive end to end changes to their entire infrastructure from the meter on your house to their back-end databases. Changes that there are no realistic way to keep quiet, much less secret.

“But the phone companies! They kept it secret for years!”

The phone companies already had all the infrastructure in place to stream real time voice conversations; all they had to do was give the feds access to that existing pipeline. Power companies have no analogous infrastructure. Most of them currently “stream” their metering data by having a guy walk from house to house and punch a five digit number into his handheld device at each stop.


The fear that power companies are using smart meters to monitor what’s going on inside your house is nonsense. Don’t get me wrong - it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the NSA has a cabinet full of devices that look exactly like (and function superficially as) various electric meters that they can use to spy on people with what would probably be an alarmingly high level of detail. But those devices aren’t transmitting data to the power company, likely aren’t installed by the power company, and the government would be (is?) using such devices regardless of whether it’s disguised as a smart meter or an simple cheap solid state residential watthour meter.

But the utilities? No. This is the same same paranoid gibberish that conspiracy theorists have been shouting about for years, and even after a decade or more of fear mongering, there’s still no credible evidence that it;'s even possible, much less happening. Fnord


Bingo. And in addition to billing concerns, we have the possibility of third party interception of data in transit from the devices to the head-end and of the utility company providing those data, after-the-fact or in real-time, to third parties. It is not hyperbole to state that the U.S. National Security Agency intend to collect and store every bit of data about every one of of us that they are able, and it is a fact that Seattle City Light participate in covert surveillance at the behest of federal agencies (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4).

1 Like

I agree. It’s important to know the data is secured against unauthorized access.

Yeah, it is. I’m not saying it’s overblown, or misused, or unclear, and it’s obviously being used to reinforce your point, which I agree with, but saying that they want to collect “every bit of data”, literally every single thing that could conceivably be known about every single person in the US? That’s pretty much a textbook example of hyperbole.

No, they don’t. Yeah, sure, saying they “measure” it in real time is trivially true - that’s what electric meters have always done, it’s how they work, just like the mercury filled thermometer on my porch measures the temperature in real time. But they don’t record or transmit data in anything even approaching real time, and claiming they do is not just hyperbole, it’s paranoid nonsense. To be fair, some folks might feel that 24 data points per day, gathered in batches of four or six at a time, meets their definition of “real time”. I don’t.

As for devices? Looking at hourly usage data can allow for some pretty sophisticated educated guessing about what’s going on inside a house, especially if there are regular patterns, but it’s still just that - guessing, and it can be spoofed/obfuscated in ways that are both thorough and pretty much undetectable with relative ease. But “they can tell when people are home, and what devices they’re using” is, again, bot just hyperbole, but overblown exaggerated FUD.

Being concerned about the security of those devices makes sense. Being concerned that the government will be secretly grabbing customer usage information from power companies makes sense. though the fact that there are hundreds of power companies versus a handful of phone companies makes me think they’re less likely to try, given the increased number of potential whistleblowers. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s an issue that warrants discussion. Your point about scope creep is well taken.

But framing the issue as “real time monitoring” that lets them know “what devices are being used” inside your house is overblown hyperbolic nonsense. “Crazy paranoid conspiracy gibberish” is perhaps too strong, but it’s certainly pointing in that direction.

I don’t want to get into a round of SWOTI, and you seem pretty smart and reasonable, so you’re welcome to the last word if you want it, but in my opinion you’re doing yourself more harm than good with that kind of language

1 Like

Ok lets assume you use 1 byte per second to record the KW value at that point thats 3600b2428 or 2419200bytes or about 24 MB a lunar month in memory needed. To store the power usage.
This assumes you aren’t using more than 1/4 of a MJ every second.

Why? Sell me power. Measure how much I use and when and charge accordingly. Anything else is unneeded and probably invasive nanny crud that I could probably do better myself.

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I will definitely keep that advice in mind.

Since the monthly rental cost is (substantially) higher than the projected monthly savings over a dumb meter, never. Unless the price of energy skyrockets and the utility improbably fails to raise the rental fee.

This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.