Study: Unencrypted Smart Meter Signal Easy to Read

By reverse-engineering the meter's transmission technology, researchers could obtain access to meter usage data.

by / October 30, 2012

As technology becomes more prevalent and easier to use, the risk of a security breach also seems to become more likely -- and the use of wireless home utility meters are no exception. As of 2010, more than one-third of all homes in the U.S. use automatic meter reading (AMR). The technology is useful because it makes data collection easier, but according to researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), the unencrypted signal may also be easier for an eavesdropper to read.

"There's been a lot of discussion about smart meters and whether they're secure or not," Lead Researcher Wenyuan Xu told "But smart meters are not yet widespread. So we wanted to look at the wireless readers common now. Are they secure? Will they leak private information?"

Like many technologies, wireless readers also reduce the demand for human workers. A single worker can drive a truck down a street and collect information on hundreds of houses, rather than have many workers manually gather data from each meter. Unfortunately, there is easier access for people who are not supposed to have access to such data.

Xu's team was able to reverse-engineer the transmission technology used by the meters to obtain access to meter usage data. Once the team understood how the technology worked, they attached an antenna and an amplifier to a laptop and visited an apartment complex to do some snooping.

"We were able to detect even further than we expected," Xu said. "The complex had 408 units, but we were able to see 485, so we were seeing beyond the complex itself." Additionally, the data could be matched to individual apartments because the packet data contained identification numbers that matched numbers stamped on the physical meters found on the apartments.

While Xu's team said they believed the packet data transmitted should be encrypted, they admitted that such snooping is not easily done. However, in the wrong hands, the data could be misused by “bad guys,” Xu said.

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