Can you trust the integrity of your data?

This afternoon, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. installed a new electric meter at our home. The SmartMeter reports its data over the powerlines – and can be remotely controlled by the utility company. Now, we’re not sure if we can trust our energy bills.

In the old days, before things were networked, possession of your data was 100% of the law. When the wheels on an old-fashioned electricity meter spun, you could tell how much power was consumed by reading the analog gauges. When you bought a book and put it onto your bookshelf, you were sure that it would say there – unless you moved it yourself, or someone broke into your home and stole it.

Now seemingly everything is connected via the Internet, cellular data networks or even power-grid networks – and you don’t have control over your own data.

Take the power meter – technically speaking, a Watt-Hour Meter. The old analog meters were basic electrical devices. No microprocessors, just motors and some circuitry. The model on our house was a Sangamo J5S, manufactured beginning in 1984. It is as simple as can be. The replacement, called a SmartMeter, is a totally computerized device. Who knows what it’s programmed to do?

Early receipients of the new SmartMeter have accused PG&E of playing games with the device. See “Customers say new PG&E meters not always smart,” in the San Francisco Chronicle.

About books – well, the books on your bookshelf are still safe, but what about your digital books? As was widely reported, erased books from customers’ Kindle e-book readers earlier this year. The company said that it wouldn’t do it again – but given that the devices are hooked up to a wireless data network, there’s no technological barrier from stopping (or a hacker) from going into your device and adding, removing or changing its contents at any time, without your permission or knowledge.

As more and more data is stored on connected systems, your ability to maintain control over that data is eroded. This applies to connected systems which are in your own home or offices, and of course, also to data stored in the Cloud. You don’t know who has access to “your” data, and who can manipulate it for their own means.

And that’s why we’re going to keep an eye on that SmartMeter… and on our utility bills.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick