On the surface, a smart grid system sounds like it has great potential from controlling our appliances and saving us money to keeping the world green.  On the other side, we could face security, privacy and health issues.  These concerns need to be addressed before we can feel comfortable with the smart grid.

Health, Privacy and Security within the Smart Grid

Len Calderone

November 2011

Health, Privacy and Security within the Smart Grid

Author: Len Calderone

On the surface, a smart grid system sounds like it has great potential from controlling our appliances and saving us money to keeping the world green.  On the other side, we could face security, privacy and health issues.  These concerns need to be addressed before we can feel comfortable with the smart grid.

In the smart home, each appliance has a unique signature. It is possible to determine which appliance is in use and at what frequency.   Using software, it is possible to determine what appliances are in a house, when they are used and how long each is in operation.  All of this information can be had through the smart meter.  This opens the home owner to the possibility of invasion of privacy.  The big question is who will have access to this information and how will it be used. 

 


Illustration of components of the PG&E smart meter program upgrade, showing the use of RF signals for communications among electric power meters, relays, access points and ultimately the company’s enterprise management systems. (Source:  Silver Spring network)

Whenever an entity has the ability to gather information of any kind, it is not likely to be used in the interest of the public.   Gathering information from the smart grid will enable a utility, the government, or a criminal to construct a detailed picture of a household’s life and activities.   Information, such as how often the microwave is used versus the oven, how many hours of television is watched, even the model of TV, and when are showers taken, can be used by salespeople, government regulatory agencies and burglars.  

Usage of the information can be controlled by laws, but if someone wants to sneak around the law, they can obtain your information.  To prevent the information from being stolen by a hacker and sold to a burglar, a high level of encryption of the information will be needed.  Even so, hackers break into banks, credit card companies and even government computers.  What says that they would not be able to break into either a home system or the utility’s computer?  Remember, RF signals can be snatched in mid air. 

Electricity usage can expose behavioral patterns with the identification of each appliance.  Image getting an email, requesting you replace that ten year old refrigerator with a new energy savings model.  Do you want such intrusion in your life?  Household patterns can signal that the residents are away.  With real-time surveillance, the utility can determine if your car is home by tracking PHEV chargers.  A dishonest utility employee could use this information to go into a side business, selling your property, to which he helped himself, or selling the information to a burglary ring, notifying them if you have an alarm system in your house.

 


Maybe you might get a knock on the door and when you open it, a government employee from some regulatory agency would be standing there asking why you are using so much electricity for baking.  Are you selling bakery goods without the proper license?  A police office might even be there asking if you are cooking meth?  There is no way that the government will avoid sticking its nose into our personal life.

Since smart meters are interconnected, terrorists could hijack a group of meters and flood the network with data to shut the entire system down.  They could send false information, causing erroneous billing, which would cost potentially millions to sort out.

A technically experienced person could find a way to report inaccurate readings to the utility to reduce their billing.  If enough people did this, the grid will fail since more energy is being used than reported; and the utility will not be prepared to maintain a level powerline, basing usage on the smart meter reports.


An attacker can hack directly into the smart meter RAM; thereby getting control.  The smart meter’s radio can be controlled similar to the RAM, allowing an attack on the grid itself.  Hackers can get into the meter via its wireless network.  Once a hacker has accessed the smart meter’s programming, he could launch a worm or other malware to attack the network, other smart meters, or other devices connected to the grid.

So, what are the solutions?  Regulatory controls would prevent most information from getting to third parties, unless requested by the consumer.  The penalties will need to be high and strongly enforced.   Utilities and equipment manufacturers will need to identify cyber vulnerabilities and develop a system that would mitigate the threats.  A secure means of communications between devices and control systems needs to be put in place.  Many of the smart meters that have already been installed, do not have the security protocols in place yet.  Utilities must have the tools needed to assess their security.  Utilities have never had to face the problems that confront them with the smart grid.  They know little of how to protect against cyber attacks. 

Some people in the community have heath issue concerns.  They worry about the potential adverse health effects of the RF utilized in the WiFi systems used by the smart meters.  The World Health Organization claims that the signals resemble those of cell phones or microwaves and are safe; yet all of these waves combined in a small area, operating at the same time would cause an electro-smog.  Exposure to an electro-smog is known to have effects on living tissue, and could cause sleep problems, memory loss, headaches, heart palpitations and cancer.  Presently, there is an inadequate amount of information to formulate a true picture of the effects of the grid system. 

 

 
    From SDG&E

The smart grid is imposed on the public by our all knowing government without the ability to opt out of the system.  We are seeing potential problems with the smart meters, which not only use a RF transmitter but also a “switching-mode power supply” (SMPS).  These units are used to step down the AC power to DC, used in the electronics, which the meters use to record the electricity usage data. 

The SMPS function emits spikes of up to 50,000 Hz.  The constant pulsing of such high frequencies, along with the RF, is causing interference with other electronic devices, and causes problems with biological systems.  Some people are complaining of health effects since a smart meter was installed. 

In 2009, Prevention Magazine stated, “… a particular kind of EMF, a relatively new suspected carcinogen known as high-frequency voltage transients, or “dirty electricity.” Transients are largely by-products of modern energy-efficient electronics and appliances–from computers, refrigerators, and plasma TVs to compact fluorescent light bulbs and dimmer switches–which tamp down the electricity they use. This manipulation of current creates a wildly fluctuating and potentially dangerous electromagnetic field that not only radiates into the immediate environment but also can back up along home or office wiring all the way to the utility, infecting every energy customer in between…”  and … “Opposite charges attract, and like charges repel. When a transient is going positive, the negatively charged electrons in your body move toward that positive charge. When the transient flips to negative, the body’s electrons are pushed back. Remember, these positive-negative shifts are occurring many thousands of times per second, so the electrons in your body are oscillating to that tune. Your body becomes charged up because you’re basically coupled to the transient’s electric field.”

We are hearing more health complaints since smart meters have been installed in thousands of homes.  Since this technology is so new, we do not have solid scientific research and studies to affirm or debunk the health problems associated with smart technology.  The complaints are too numerous and the issues potentially too significant and far reaching to ignore.

On the surface, a smart grid system sounds like it has great potential from controlling our appliances and saving us money to keeping the world green.  On the other side, we could face security, privacy and health issues.  These concerns need to be addressed before we can feel comfortable with the smart grid.

Len started in the audio visual industry in 1975 and has contributed articles to several publications.  He also writes opinion editorials for a local newspaper.  He is now retired.

This article contains statements of personal opinion and comments made in good faith in the interest of the public.   You should confirm all statements with the manufacturer to verify the correctness of the statements.

 


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