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Some see smart meters as posing security risks

PITTSBURGH - Chances are that you have never given your electricity meter a second thought. But in Pennsylvania, it's increasingly likely that your meter is thinking about you.

PITTSBURGH - Chances are that you have 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 several 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 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 study found, "an observer could discern the behavior of occupants in a home over a period of time."

The industry says 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 spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling said the meters use "multiple layers of security" that include data encryption, and they do not 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.

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 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 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 have 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.

"I'm sure there are great applications for these meters," said one sponsor, State Rep. Mike Reese (R., Westmoreland). "But if a constituent says they don't want this meter, I think they should have that choice."

The bills have gained 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 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 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 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."