How to lower your electricity bill: Hack your smart meter

Many green-minded people promote smart meters as a way to help consumers reduce their electricity bills. And boy are they right: Determined users can tamper with the devices to artificially lower their usage readings, or even to get someone else to pay.

So reports the BBC, which says researchers have discovered that a widely used smart meter in Spain is susceptible to such tampering.

Smart meters digitally connect users to their electricity provider, reporting usage and helping customers to monitor and lower their consumption. They can be instrumental in reducing bills related to everything in the household from lighting to appliances to gadgets.

But as independent security experts Javier Vidal and Alberto Illera found in Spain, they are open to hacking. Vidal and Illera set out to find holes they suspected existed in the system deployed by one major utility. Eventually, they were able to crack into the meters' encryption systems and send spoof messages from the meter to the electric utility.

'We feared the security would be easy to break and we confirmed that," Vidal told the BBC. 'We can fool the [utilities] and send them false data.'

The good news: Their 'easy' job took six months, including reverse engineering the smart meters, peeling back firmware to expose encryption keys, and deconstructing the utility's communication network (Vidal would not reveal the name of the utility in Spain, a country that plans to install millions of smart meters by 2018).

But the porous security leaves the meters open to a range of abuse including under reporting or re-assigning usage to someone else. 'With more work it might be possible to find a way to seek out meters and cut off the power they are supplying, they said,' the BBC wrote.

The Spanish work sets a cautionary example for the rest of the world.

Security investigator Greg Jones found similar problems in the UK, including shared IDs, poor protection against tampering and data formats that would be easy to fake, the article stated.

Navigant Research forecasts that the global annual smart meter market will grow to $6.6 billion and 116 million units in 2023 from $4.4 billion and 94 million units this year.

Millions are already installed in the US, where a federal stimulus program has now given way to a more mature market.

And one that the security experts might maintain is ripe for hacking.

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Photo is from Pi-Lens via Shutterstock​

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