What Does Your Smart Meter Know About You?

CITRIS Director Costas Spanos is among a team of UC Berkeley researchers investigating the implications – and potential misuse – of information gathered by smart meters. A recent research paper shows that “machine learning systems can be trained to detect occupancy without any initial information from a homeowner.” While this new technology has great potential, the team is also investigating how smart meter information “could be used for home intrusion or other bad activities,” and developing ways to protect homeowner privacy.

“We are now looking to determine the optimal size of the added noise that would mask information about occupancy and still give the utility company an accurate enough reading for its needs,” says Berkeley researcher Ming Jin.

IEEE Spectrum, June 23, 2017 – An ordinary smart meter gives your local utility useful information about how much energy you are using—every hour, or even as often as every minute. This helps utility planners efficiently adjust electricity generation to meet demand or encourage reductions in demand when necessary.

But machine learning systems, looking at that data, can tell something else about your home besides its energy use—they can tell if you are home, or if you are not. That’s what University of California at Berkeley researchers Ming Jin, Ruoxi Jia, and Costas Spanos found out. That information, Jin says, is also useful for utilities—they can call or show up to perform necessary maintenance when you are home, and not waste personnel time trying to reach you.

But they aren’t the only ones who can access this information, given the data is transmitted wirelessly, and isn’t necessarily encrypted at every stage of its journey.

“If you know a person is home, as an advertiser, you can make a phone call. If you know a person isn’t home, that information could be used for home intrusion or other bad activities,” Jin says.

Read the IEEE Spectrum article here.

You can read the published academic paper, “Virtual Occupancy Sensing: Using Smart Meters to Indicate Your Presence,” in IEEE as well. 

Photo by Dwight Burdette (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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