PHILADELPHIA,PA-Smart meters pose personal surveillance risks, experts say

Smart meters pose personal surveillance risks, experts say

Smart meters on a house in Delaware County. (Reid Kanaley / Staff)
PITTSBURGH (AP) – Chances are that you’ve never given your electricity meter a second thought. But in Pennsylvania, it’s increasingly likely that your meter is thinking about you.

Under a 2008 state law, utilities have been installing so-called “smart meters” statewide. Unlike traditional meters, which compile a running total of monthly electricity usage, smart meters can track usage nearly in real time, and transmit it to the utility multiple times an hour. The industry says the meters will benefit the environment and consumers, but not everyone is convinced.

“The privacy issues are astronomical,” said Lisa Nancollas, a Mifflin County Tea Party activist with the group Stop Smart Meters in Pennsylvania. “They’re able to come up with a graph of exactly what you are doing 24 hours a day.”

It may seem odd to worry about whether Big Brother is watching you toast your bagel. But the government itself acknowledges that smart meters can be a surveillance tool.

“If law enforcement officers obtained near-real time data on a consumer’s electricity usage . their ability to monitor household activities would be amplified significantly,” reported a 2012 study by the Congressional Research Service.

That’s in part because each appliance has a distinctive electric heartbeat that meters can track. Your refrigerator may have a low steady pulse, while baking a cake may spike the needle like a temblor along the San Andreas fault. “By combining appliance usage patterns,” the Congressional study found, “an observer could discern the behavior of occupants in a home over a period of time.”

The industry contends that the meters pose minimal privacy risks.

Robin Tilley, a spokeswoman for the Public Utility Commission, noted that Pennsylvania regulations prohibit utilities from releasing usage information to third parties – such as companies selling energy-efficient appliances – without customer consent. As for hackers, Duquesne Light spokesperson Ashlee Yingling said the meters use “multiple layers of security” that include data encryption, and they don’t transmit information such as names or addresses.

As the Congressional Research Service notes, such “privacy safeguards . are not foolproof.” But even if the information could be hacked, much of it would be “available by monitoring a home and seeing if lights are on,” said Sharelynn Moore, a spokesperson for meter-manufacturer Itron, Inc.

Ms. Moore, whose company makes meters for Duquesne Light and other utilities, said the meters offer economic and environmental benefits. Real-time usage reporting means utilities “will know your power is out much more quickly than having to wait for someone to call in.” The data can also help customers track and reduce their electricity consumption, or resolve billing disputes.

Eventually, real-time usage data could allow for variable pricing during times of peak demand. That practice could have environmental benefits, advocates say. If customers have an incentive to run their dishwasher in the evening, instead of during a hot summer afternoon, it could reduce the risk of brownouts and the need for additional power plants.

That was the rationale in 2008, when an energy-conservation bill, Act 129, required utilities to install smart meters statewide by 2023. The bill sailed through the legislature, where supporters hailed it as a way to save money and protect the environment. It was signed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell.

Few Pennsylvanians have voiced concerns since. Since 2012, the PUC has logged just 89 informal meter-related complaints statewide.

Duquesne Light has installed more than 74,000 meters, and reports only 300 customers requesting not to have their meter exchanged. Penn Power has installed 130,000 of the 170,000 it expects to place in areas north of Pittsburgh by year’s end.

While the meters can log “the kind of data that you won’t want floating around about yourself,” said Julia Horwitz, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Council, they’ve attracted little attention. “We don’t have a set of dramatic real-world stories the way we do with some other breaches.”

“We do get some people who refuse (meters), but it’s a very small minority – less than 1 percent,” said Penn Power spokeswoman Diane Francis. “For the most part, we’re able to alleviate any concerns.” The utility reaches out to skeptics, she said, although with the installation deadline years away, should a customer remain opposed, “We’re not going to force the issue at this time.”

Even so, some Harrisburg legislators have proposed “opt-out” measures to allow consumers to stick with the old meters.

“I’m sure there are great applications for these meters,” said one sponsor, Republican state Rep. Mike Reese of Mount Pleasant. “But if a constituent says they don’t want this meter, I think they should have that choice.”

The bills have gotten little traction, a fact smart-meter foes blame on state Rep. Robert Godshall, a Montgomery County Republican who chairs the House committee handling the legislation. “He’s been sitting on these bills, and we feel he has a conflict of interest because his son works for (Philadelphia utility) PECO,” said Barbara Dahdah-Anderson, a Philadelphia resident involved with an anti-smart meter group that has demonstrated at Godshall’s office.

“My life has been pretty well smart-metered out,” said Rep. Godshall, who said his son’s job had no connection to meter installation. Despite the pressure, he said, his committee was unlikely to act on opt-out legislation.

“I would hate to bring it up knowing that it would require each utility to build a whole other system for a tiny minority of people,” he said. “The cost would all fall back on the consumer.”

Maryland, for one, allows customers to decline the meters, but Godshall said, “We should have done that in the beginning if we wanted it.” The cost of requiring utilities to allow opt-outs now, he said, “would be prohibitive.”

That leaves meter foes with few options. “I had hoped the PUC would represent consumers,” said one Eastern Pennsylvania resident who filed a formal complaint with the agency, and whose commitment to privacy was such that she would only speak anonymously. “But I was told that this was a done deal.”

Her options now, she said, were to “go on a propane generator, move to a place where there’s an opt-out, or live like a hobbit.”



This story is part of Surveillance Society, a series examining the implications of privacy intrusions, many of which occur on a daily basis. For more stories in the series, go to


Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,

NY-ACTION ALERT- NY TELECOM STUDY Hearings- 1/2 measure for access

UPDATE- after multiple requests on an accessible hearing re: the State Telecommunications Study,

Study on the State of Telecommunications in New York State

About the Initiative

In early 2014, the Department of Public Service notified State legislative leaders that it had launched a comprehensive examination and study of the telecommunications industry in New York. The study, which will include opportunities for public input, will include an analysis of the varying telecommunications technologies used today, including fiber-to-the-premises, cable, wireless, and landline technologies. The study will explore emergency response systems, regulatory oversight, quality of service, consumer protections, and affordability. The framework that will guide the examination includes the following areas: status of competition for communications services and networks; current and future consumer expectations; core public interest principles to be maintained; reliability, resiliency and interoperability of networks; and assessment of national and international approaches to ensuring core public interest principles and robust communications capabilities are maintained.

As noted in Chair Zibelman’s May 13, 2014 letter to State legislative leaders, it is highly desirable for the industry, education, government, unions, consumer and other public interest groups to have a forum to publicly and affirmatively present views on the current status of telecommunications in the state. Through the examination of these questions in public settings, with all the relevant stakeholders, a fair picture of the status of telecommunications in New York can emerge. The study will include public technical conferences on various forward-looking topics and formal public input to the final report. The public input will form a basic set of facts and vision to inform the Commission, Legislature and the Governor in order to set a rational and balanced approach to oversight of the interconnected telecommunications network of the future.

MICHAEL CORSO at the NYS Dept of Public Service came back and said we can’t turn off the Wi-Fi and how about if the EHS people testify first so they can get out quickly?

I said- NO- that was like a wheelchair ramp that only goes 75% of the way into the building and no one with EHS would drive to Albany and then be forcibly exposed and not properly accommodated.

Wi-Fi must be off on floor and entrance at least, request for phones to be powered down, no cell tower nearby and modern fluorescent lights off where possible.

If you want to weigh in- call

michael.corso@dps.ny.govPhone: 518-474-4686


To access the Telecommunications Study, go to: www.dps.ny.qov/TelStudy

key excerpts from Study to be discussed at the hearings:

page 11:

Migration to wireless communications has been a major trend in voice services.  Along

with the proliferation of advanced personal electronics with improved features and functionality, and the emergence of Wi-Fi hotspots, wireless networks have led to a new era of voice communications.  As these networks continue to deploy more advanced technologies, like LTE, consumers are expected to experience greater quality and reliability which could lead to additional future migrations as their primary voice platform.  The move to wireless platforms is not limited to wireless cellular networks, however, as cable companies have also begun to offer wireless voice services over their expanded Wi-Fi networks.

pages 13&14:

The trend away from traditional wireline services aligns with both National and State

surveys of consumer preference. The most recent National Health Interview Survey on Wireless Substitution, commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dated July 2014, found that, “the number of American homes with only wireless telephones continues to grow.  Two in every five American homes (41.0%) had only wireless telephones.”  In the 2006 Competition III Order (Comp III Order), the Commission noted that 9.4% of U.S. wireless 20 subscribers used a wireless phone as their primary phone.  In New York, a November 2014 survey conducted by the Siena College Research Institute in New York for AT&T indicated that 28% of upstate households (21% statewide) rely only on mobile wireless for voice service.

page 17:

Regulatory Oversight

The Commission’s regulatory policies and practices over telecommunication providers

have evolved with technological changes in the industry.  In 1994, the Commission initiated its Competition II proceeding which articulated its four overarching “core” principles: (1) ensuring the provision of quality telecommunications services at reasonable rates, (2) where feasible, allowing competition to be the most efficient means to achieve that goal, (3) recognizing that regulation should reflect market conditions, and (4) acknowledging that providers in like circumstances should be subject to like regulations. Throughout this transition to more competitive markets, the Commission has attempted to balance the needs of consumers for protection from business practices that might endanger their health, safety and welfare against the adequacy of market forces to provide those protections.

page 20:

At the time of the Commission Order adopting Verizon’s revised SQIP, the company reported approximately 400,000 core customers and 4.96 million total access lines.  As of December 2014, through customer migrations to other services and service providers (including Verizon wireless or other VoIP companies) or other circumstances, the number of core customers remaining on the Verizon’s wireline network has declined to less than 200,000, a reduction of about 50%.

Lifeline Telephone Service

The Lifeline telephone service program was implemented by the FCC in 1985 in the

wake of the 1984 divestiture of AT&T.  Its initial purpose was to ensure that any increase in local rates that occurred following major changes in the marketplace would not make local phone service unaffordable for low-income households and result in service disconnection. There are mechanisms in place to ensure that carriers recover their cost of providing Lifeline service.  Those carriers designated as Eligible Telecommunications Carriers (ETC) are eligible to receive Federal Universal Service Funding for Lifeline up to $9.25 per customer.  New York carriers are also allowed recovery of their Lifeline costs, exclusive of any Federal Lifeline support, via procedures governed by the Targeted Accessibility Fund of New York, Inc.

Lifeline service being available to traditional and competitive wireline customers, Time Warner Cable also offers a VoIP-based Lifeline service.

Subscribership to traditional wireline Lifeline services in New York peaked in 1996, at

more than 768,000 lines.  Since then, Lifeline enrollment has been declining and, as of year-end 2014, total wireline enrollment in New York amounted to only 137,000 lines.

Part of the recent decline in wireline Lifeline is due to an FCC initiative to eliminate

duplicative subscriptions, including thousands in New York, where customers were enrolled and receiving both wireline and wireless Lifeline services.  Those customers were given the choice of maintaining either a wireline or wireless Lifeline service, but not both.  The net result of that reform was that many customers dropped their wireline enrollments for wireless Lifeline service, and the wireline figures for 2012 and 2013 declined further as duplicate enrollments were eliminated from the system.

The most significant growth in the Lifeline service category, however, is evident in the

consumer adoption of wireless Lifeline service.  Wireless companies, such as Cricket

Communications, I-Wireless, Tracfone Wireless, and Virgin Mobile actively promote wireless Lifeline service.  In the relatively short span of five years, wireless Lifeline subscriptions have ballooned from just a few thousand, to over 1 million.  The level of wireless Lifeline subscriptions in 2013 has surpassed even the peak wireline subscriptions of the mid-1990s.

page 31:

Transitional Issues

Copper Retirement and Replacement

Although fiber technology has been used for decades in traditional telephone networks,

for interoffice transport and to serve digital loop carrier systems, the deployment of fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) is a relatively new development in the long history of telephony.  Most all of the Frontier network in New York State remains copper-based.  While Frontier’s telephone (voice) service quality has not been an issue, the company’s ability to provide modern high-speed Internet (data) service on a going-forward basis will become more and more limited without an assertive fiber build-out schedule.

The mass migration of customers to alternative communications modes over the last

decade, and the resulting reduction of access lines and associated revenue, has strained the

business case for narrow band legacy copper networks whose copper plant has contributed to declining service quality performance in some instances.  Aging copper plant is an issue in both urban areas of New York, where Verizon’s fiber technology may run parallel to copper, as well as rural areas, where fiber deployment is less prevalent.

Except for the few areas where it has provided notification of copper facility retirement,

Verizon still maintains its copper network, even in areas where FiOS is broadly deployed.

Pursuant to its franchise with New York City, Verizon committed to a complete build-out of FiOS for video service by June 2014.  However, the Commission is aware that in some

neighborhoods and many buildings in NYC, FiOS is not readily available to customers for

various reasons.  In many areas of New York City, the legacy copper infrastructure is in such poor condition that copper failures due to weather conditions can cause long delays for service restoration and Commission service quality standards are missed.  To keep customers connected, the company offers Voice Link as a permanent service or as an interim solution until copper can be repaired.  In many instances, the migration to FiOS may not be readily available so the company faces a difficult repair or lengthy replacement of the copper facility to serve a reduced customer base.

page 33:

The challenges of the NYC FiOS build and the Fire Island experience illustrates many of

the difficulties faced by companies and communities related to the retirement and replacement of copper-based TDM networks and the transition to IP, FTTP and wireless networks.  There is a general concern in areas solely served by copper networks that repairs are not unduly delayed as carriers transition to other technologies.  The PSC must also ensure that copper retirements are not being accelerated as an artificial means to degrade competition, raise consumer prices or otherwise reduce consumer protections.

page 54:

Mobile wireless broadband, while not necessarily a full substitute for wired broadband, is available to nearly all households, whether or not a wired broadband service is available.  Fixed point-to-point wireless is a nascent service beginning to be offered to some rural customers and according to Appendix C reaches approximately 12% of the New York State census blocks.

pages 55-56:

The state’s mobile (cellular) wireless broadband system has expanded tremendously in

the last few years, and consumers are subscribing to wireless broadband faster than any other mode available to them.  The deployment of Long Term Evolution (LTE, or 4G) service throughout most of the state by companies like AT&T and Verizon Wireless, has raised the broadband bar.  Consumers can now subscribe to mobile (cellular) wireless data plans from a variety of providers with download speeds in excess of 50 Mbps with the additional ability to take this service with them, just as with mobile voice service.  Additional wireless spectrum, recently auctioned by the FCC to 15 winning bidders providing service in New York, should significantly add to existing capacity and allow further expansion of wireless broadband services and enhanced competition.  Nationally, the FCC’s AWS-3 auction raised nearly $45 billion, of which $6.8 billion, or 15.1% of the total bid revenues, were for wireless spectrum licenses in New York State market areas.

As more consumers adopt wireless services for their voice, data, and video needs,

companies are expanding their service coverage and broadband speeds to meet consumer

demand (as noted in the video section of this report, while functionally capable of providing video services, wireless broadband connections are not currently a viable option for most households’ video needs and may include significant data caps at present).  Table 13 depicts the aggregate number of wireless broadband connections in service between 2009 and 2013.  The accompanying Figure 14 map shows the LTE broadband service coverage of the four national  wireless carriers as of April 2014.  Over the last two years, LTE broadband coverage has expanded significantly, providing subscribers with access to faster data speeds from more providers than ever before.  The significant growth of wireless broadband connections over the past few years is reflective of the expanded service coverage of wireless broadband networks over that same time period.

Table 13: Mobile Wireless Broadband Connections






page 68:

As reflected in Appendix A, the extent of the Commission’s authority or jurisdiction over

broadband services is limited and at present, not fully defined.  While the Commission has a duty under the Federal law to encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications infrastructure, it cannot price regulate or restrict entry of broadband networks.  At the same time, however, the Commission does have some authority over the networks that provide broadband through its authority over telephone and cable providers: most notably, in 2014, the Commission’s authority over cable mergers and transfers was strengthened to require that an applicant make a showing that a given transaction is in the public interest.  In its comments to the Commission in Case 14-M-0183, related to the Comcast Merger, Staff recognized that the Commission has a core interest in ensuring broadband access and affordability for all New Yorkers and stated that any review of a cable merger must include an analysis of a transaction’s impacts on broadband service.

Staff advocated that, among other things, the Commission should examine customer

service, and, consistent with the statewide push toward universal 100 Mbps service, Staff

argued that faster broadband service should be made available to a larger segment of New

York’s consumers as the result of any cable merger through investments in the system to address physical access limitations and through commitments to address the digital divide.

APPENDIX A: High Level Overview of

Public Service Law Jurisdiction & Commission Core Interests