Call Logs? Try Kilowatts: Reports Reveal Demands for California Energy Data

Amid recent revelations that the NSA has been secretly spying on phone records and the Internet activity of people in the United States, transparency reports filed by the California utilities companies and obtained by the ACLU of California show that a significant amount of data about the energy use of Californians could be ending up in the hands of the government too. In 2012, a single California utility company, San Diego Gas & Electric, disclosed the smart meter energy records of over 4,000 of its customers pursuant to legal demands – and it’s unclear whether this information was turned over in a private lawsuit, to local law enforcement, or even to the federal government.

Smart meters, the modern energy measurement devices now installed on most California homes, can collect up to 3,000 data points a month about energy usage, potentially exposing details about your private life including whether you are home or away, your sleep and work habits, and maybe even if you need to take hot baths or use specialized medical equipment. It’s like someone being inside your house taking notes on the intimate details of your day-to-day life.

The sensitive nature of these energy records prompted California lawmakers to call for privacy safeguards in 2010, and in 2011 the California Public Utilities Commission adopted privacy rules. The CPUC rules prohibit utility companies from sharing smart meter energy usage information with third parties without consumer consent unless the disclosure is pursuant to legal process. The rules require each utility to issue an annual transparency report describing the number of legal demands received for usage information and the number of customers whose records were actually disclosed.

The California energy utilities filed their first transparency reports in April 2013 and the results reveal some very interesting and potentially concerning information about demands for energy data in 2012. While Southern California Edison Company (SCE) disclosed records for 1 customer, and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) disclosed records on 86, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) disclosedthe records of 4,062 customers. SDG&E’s report also does not disclose how many demands it received, as the rules require. SDG&E serves 3.4 million people and—as we have learned in the NSA spying revelations—a single legal request can potentially result in the disclosure of millions of customers’ records. Finally, none of the reports reveal whether the federal government, local law enforcement, or private litigants demanded or received the records.

These annual smart meter reports provide welcome transparency into the number of entities using legal process to obtain Californians’ energy usage information. But the reports also raise further questions about why some of the disclosure numbers are so high, who is requesting and receiving energy data, and the form of legal process behind the requests. The CPUC has authority under the privacy rules to ask for additional information, and it should do so. And all of the California utilities should be forthcoming about just how many demands they are receiving for customer information, how many customer records are implicated, and the nature of these demands. Energy usage information includes details about the private lives of Californians—when a utility discloses these records, customers should know what is happening and why.

View comments (3)
Read the Terms of Use


Burglars, Hackers and the Government All Want to See Your Smart Meter Data

NBC News reports:

Researchers examining the privacy implications of smart-meter technology found that one German provider’s devices contained vulnerabilities that allowed them to snoop on unencrypted data to determine whether or not the homeowners were home.

After signing up with the German smart-meter firm Discovergy, the researchers detected that the company’s devices transmitted unencrypted data from the home devices back to the company’s servers over an insecure link. The researchers, Dario Carluccio and Stephan Brinkhaus, intercepted the supposedly confidential and sensitive information, and, based on the fingerprint of power usage, were able to tell not only whether or not the homeowners were home, away or even sleeping, but also what movie they were watching on TV.


I appreciate the information provided in this write-up, and look forward to reading updates regarding data usage requests re; smart meters, and what legal requirements there are in place (if any) to protect private citizen data and daily activities. Thank you for writing this!

Wilma Watcher

Smart meters affect more than just your privacy - the detrimental affects on human health are well documented. Over 6,000 studies show this but not one is cited by the electric companies that push the smart meter. Instead they cite an old 1999 study on the use of the meter itself that showed the meter safe from fire, explosion, etc and safe to operate mechanically and deceptively cite it as implying it's safe but for whom! and safe from what?!
That is the deception...The state of Hawaii, Vermont and several other states have challenged the electric companies to allow customers to opt out and not have to pay more but most states are still clueless about this. I found out that you don't have to accept this meter. It is a violation of your 4th amendment rights! I would gladly welcome new technology but not at the cost to my health. I urge the ACLU to do more in SC to help to allow people a way to opt out and not have to compromise their health or be penalized with extra costs and monthly fees to keep their old meter.

Stay Informed