Smart Meters: behavioural tracking brought to real-life

Linky Smart Meter (ERDF)
Linky, ERDF’s Smart Meter (France)

It’s well known that the more we enter the digital era, the more our life becomes tracked. Our mobile phones, credit cards or web browsers leave tracks behind our back.

Most of Digital-natives are aware of that, but there is a rather new and intrusive tracking method that is making its way to our homes, it’s called electronic tracking.

It’s well explained in a talk given at the 28th Chaos Communication Congress entitled Smart Hacking For Privacy.

The idea is simple: if I monitor your home’s energy consumption regularly, I can say how many electronic devices you have, how many of them are up and running, when you’re at home, and even, theorically, which channel you’re watching on TV.

How so?

Each electronic device (a dish washer, a fridge, a computer) has a specific pattern of energy consumption, it’s like a digital signature saying “I’m here!” to the moniotoring device. All this was an interesting theory but was hardly usable in real life… Until energy providers started deploying so-called Smart Meters.

Smart Meters are a new kind of electical meters that are able to measure very frequently the global consumption of a house, it’s deployed in order to increase the precision of the consumer bills but can be used in many ways to become surveillance devices that monitor the behavior of the customers.

This leads to unprecedented and invisible invasions of the consumer privacy.

Even better: not only the Smart Metter is able to tell how many devices you have, and what they are, but it’s also theorically able to tell which TV show you’re watching!

The energy signature of a TV depends on the image it displays on screen (actually, its brightness will change its energy consuption pattern). So if the device has acces to a patterns database, it can compare the one your TV is leaking with it and find out which show you’re watching… Scary.

It appears that all of this raw data is sent by smart meters to energy providers, what will they do with that? It’s an unpleasant and opened question.

If they do use it to profile your home, it’s to me one of the most intrusive, invisible and violent profiling method we could imagine: the whole house being tracked, every 2 seconds, transparently.

I can disable my cookies if I don’t want to be tracked online, I can shut my phone down if I don’t want my provider to know where I am, I can pay cash if I don’t want my bank to track my expenses, but how could I live without electricity at home?

3 thoughts on “Smart Meters: behavioural tracking brought to real-life

  1. Hmm, I’m not convinced 2-second snapshots of power usage of the whole house would be anywhere near sufficient in practice to match up to figure out what channel a TV is displaying. Even with no other devices consuming power, the (pretty tiny) power draw fluctuations are going to be somewhat smoothed by capacitors etc within the device’s power supply, and further change due to the AC mains frequency etc; add in other devices pulling changing amounts of power, and minute fluctations in the supply voltage, and I don’t think it’s really likely that you could extract usable information in practice. Under controlled conditions in a lab, perhaps, but in reality?

    David Precious

  2. Amazing to discover that, but for tv cable or DSL could provide an easier way to be tracked.
    Is there any chance my energy company will adjust my plan to my need ?


  3. David: well I’m clearly no electronic expert, but the CCC talk I linked and some papers on the subject let me think that “it’s theorically possible”.

    I understand that’s an extreme case, but anyways, having a “Smart Meter” sending raw data of 2 second snaphots everyday to the energy provider sounds very intrusive, even if they don’t (or can’t) go to the point where the TV channel is detected.


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