The Security Risks of Having Unencrypted Utility Meters

Researchers from the University of South Carolina say unencrypted broadcasts from automatic meter reading technology can be intercepted.

As of 2010, 47 million utility meters have wireless automatic meter reading technology. Of those meters, all of their broadcasts are unencrypted, which allows eavesdroppers to intercept the broadcast and have a window into household activities. Lead researcher Wenyuan Xu, a professor in USC’s College of Engineering and Computing, says that much of the focus in the research security community right now is on the next generation of devices, the so-called “smart” meters.

Xu and her team reported that they found neither security nor privacy in the representative AMR systems they tested. Once they understood how to read the data, they conducted an eavesdropping experiment in a local apartment complex. Using a modestly priced antenna and laptop located inside one of her graduate student’s apartment, they were able to detect dozens of nearby electricity meters. By adding an inexpensive amplifier to the system, they were able to gather electrical data from every apartment in the complex – hundreds of units up to 500 yards away.

The team’s analysis showed that, beyond raw usage data, a range of information could be deduced from analyzing the meter’s activity, particularly when it came to electricity. The detailed electricity data gave information about activities within the household – when the inhabitants got up, went to work and got home, for example. The team was able to deduce that 27 of the apartments within the complex were unoccupied.

That sort of information could be harmful in the wrong hands. Xu is careful not to reveal too much detail in her publications, she said. “We don’t want the bad guys to know too much. It’s about letting the right people know what needs to be better protected.”

The good news is that reliance on what’s often called “security through obscurity” appears to be working. Obtaining personal household data through wireless meters is difficult. What Xu and her team hope is that drawing attention to the potential for problems might help the industry realize the necessity of designing systems with security in mind.

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