AUSTIN, Texas — A popular website dedicated to government transparency is facing legal threats from a multinational corporation that hopes to block publication of documents related to their electricity meters.
MuckRock helps researchers, journalists, and normal citizens obtain government documents through Freedom of Information Act requests, or their local equivalent under state laws, then publicly shares the results. Earlier this month, the site surpassed one million documents shared.
In April, Phil Mocek, a Seattle-based software engineer, used the site to file an open records request with Seattle City Light, the local power company, seeking information relating to the security of smart power meters the city purchased from Landis+Gyr, a multinational owned by Toshiba.
On Wednesday, Landis+Gyr notified MuckRock that the company was suing in the Superior Court of Washington for King County to block the release of the records.
“A multinational owned by Toshiba is demanding MuckRock remove documents about them received under a public records act request, destroy any copies we have, and help identify MuckRock readers who saw them,” wrote Michael Morisy, the website’s founder.
Seattle already released two documents from the request: an independent security audit of the smart meter technology that the company provided to the city, and a separate two-page security overview. The documents revealed some issues, including missing data from a routine internal security review.
“In addition to filing for an injunction against MuckRock and Phil Mocek, Landis+Gyr has also filed for an emergency injunction against the city to bar the release of more documents that were requested by Mocek but which have not yet been released,” Morisy added.
For now, at least, all documents will remain on the website. “We believe that these legal threats are a chilling attack on free speech and we will not be complying with their demands,” Morisy wrote, adding:
“We also believe people have a broad right to understand the security implications of technology purchased by their governments, particularly if, as is the case with the smart electrical meter systems provided by Landis+Gyr, that technology monitors the activities of people in their homes.”
While smart meters are meant to cut energy consumption and electricity bills, security experts have warned for years that they could also violate the privacy of residents and leave them vulnerable to hackers. In 2013, The Guardian’s John Naughton reported:
“Inside each device is a sim card that enables it to communicate with the utility companies that supply the gas and electricity. This is how the utilities will always be able to supply an accurate meter reading. But it will also enable them remotely to terminate your supply if, for example, you fail to pay your bills on time. Which means – and here’s the interesting bit – Kim Jong-un, the Chinese army or any number of unsavoury characters in the Middle East or Russia could do the same.”
“From the viewpoint of a cyber attacker — whether a hostile government agency, a terrorist organisation or even a militant environmental group — the ideal attack on a target country is to interrupt its citizens’ electricity supply. This is the cyber equivalent of a nuclear strike; when electricity stops, then pretty soon everything else does too.”