The deadline for having smart meters fitted in every home in the UK is 2020 – I know this some way in the future, but it is going to take a good few years to install the meters, so it is quite disconcerting that we still don’t have any of the details finalised around some key areas. One of those areas is security and privacy of data.

There are fears about how the data your smart meter generates could be used. For example, every electrical appliance in your home has a specific energy usage pattern, like DNA, each one is unique. If your energy supplier could tell from your levels of energy consumption that you had an old television set, they might try and sell your details to a company that sells electrical goods. Or if you live alone, this could be identified from your energy consumption too, and it wouldn’t exactly be appropriate for a dating agency to start bombarding you with marketing literature because your energy company said so.  Another concern is around the security – if a tech-savvy burglar managed to intercept the meter readings coming out of your smart meter they would be able to identify the best time to break in.

I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop last week which was hosted by Consumer Focus – the reason for the session is that they are excited, but also concerned, about the new generation of smart meters.  They wanted to explore the privacy and data protection issues with some relevant stakeholders, and more importantly, look at the safeguards required in order to protect customers.

Amongst others, there were representatives from Ofgem, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), No2ID, Privacy International, several energy suppliers, the Dutch Government Office of Applied Scientific Research, and of course, uSwitch.  That’s a lot of different organisations, with very different agendas:

  • The people responsible for the network capacity and making sure the lights stay on are keen to get hold of data from smart meters to help them to understand how much power is needed.
  • The energy suppliers say they just want enough data to allow them to send an accurate bill. Hmm, it’s not quite as simple as that, because they will want to incentivise you to use energy when they get it cheaper i.e. off peak, but to do that they need to get frequent meter readings from you.
  • The chaps from Privacy International and No2ID didn’t want anyone having any data.

There were also technological experts present talking about firewalls, 128 bit encryption and security protocols, but the elephant in the room was still how we can make sure that our information and personal data stays safe when smart meters are rolled out?

A couple of chaps from the Netherlands explained how things had happened when smart meters were rolled out there. The original plan had been:

  • Every household was going to get a smart meter within six years
  • No one could refuse to have a smart meter installed, if they did they would get a €16,500 Euro fine or face six months in prison
  • Meter readings would be taken every 15 minutes
  • Customer consent would not be required to send any information collected to a third party

However, due to a revolt by customers, things end up changing. Here’s what actually happened:

  • People have the right to refuse the installation of a smart meter.
  • You can have a smart meter fitted but opt out of sending your meter readings automatically, so a meter reader would still knock on your door.
  • You can have a smart meter fitted, but only allow six meter readings a year.

The Dutch solution is a really good compromise, but you can bet that the better value tariffs are only available to those who are happy to share more information, but that is to be expected as the wheels of commerce turn. After all, nothing in this life is free.

The point I am trying to make is that you need to watch what is happening with your personal information. The data that comes out of a smart meter is like a window into your way of life. If you feel strongly enough about this issue then don’t sit back and let other people make decisions for you – stand up for what you think is right. On the flip-side, you may be happy to allow people to have access to your information, but don’t be sold short. That information has a value attached to it so make sure you get a good deal.

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