The Times has reported that the £8.1 billion rollout of smart meters in Britain could be knocked off course unless the Government and Ofgem, the energy regulator, act urgently to convince the public that the information provided by the meters will
be held securely.
Fears that data on energy consumption could be misused by criminals, police or insurance companies have curtailed the compulsory introduction of the meters in the Netherlands, according to a report by Datamonitor, the market
Dutch consumer and privacy organisations were concerned that information relayed as frequently as every 15 minutes could allow employees of utility companies to see when properties were empty or when householders had bought expensive new
The doomsday scenario is that once such intricate details of a person's energy habits are made available, the government could start proscribing ever-more individual taxation or even cut-off someone's energy supply on the basis of how
much they were using.
The u-turn by the Dutch government represents a tremendous victory for privacy campaigners in the Netherlands and demonstrates that if enough noise is made about a civil liberties issue, eventually politicians will fold
rather than face an electoral backlash.
The government has announced the results of its consultation with the public and other interested parties on plans for smart energy meters to be installed in all British homes and businesses. The most controversial aspects of the devices - the
fact that they will effectively allow remote control of a home by energy companies and/or the grid authority - have apparently passed unchallenged.
Many of the proposed capabilities of smart meters, to be universally installed by 2020, are
The machines will be run like Sky or TiVo boxes, under remote control from outside the home - users will have no control over them.
Real time power monitoring like this already rings some alarm bells - it will
usually be possible, for instance, to use such data to tell if people are in or out, and perhaps other details such as what TV programmes they like to watch, how many hot drinks they consume, whether they cook with a microwave or an oven etc. Such
information is significant in a privacy context, and valuable in bulk to marketing organisations.
Apart from being able to turn a house off and on remotely, however, the unspecified people who control the meters from afar will also have
other capabilities. Specifically, the boxes will have load management capability to deliver demand side management - ability to remotely control electricity load for more sophisticated control of devices in the home .
is industry code for power rationing or cuts. Controlling load , as the consultation says, is a matter of turning things on or off, up or down. Quite bluntly, this is not a meter - it's a remote-control device in charge of your house, and
potentially of everything in it.
Smart meters could become a spy in the home by allowing social workers and health authorities to monitor households, adding to concern at Britain's surveillance society.
The devices, which the government plans to install in every home by
2020, will also tell energy firms what sort of appliances are being used, allowing companies to target customers who do not reduce their energy consumption.
Privacy campaigners have expressed horror at the proposalss, the Department for Energy and
Climate Change (DECC) says there is theoretically scope... for using the smart metering communications infrastructure to enable a variety of other services, such as monitoring of vulnerable householders by health authorities or social services
It adds: Information from smart meters could also make it possible for a supplier to determine when electricity or gas was being used in a property and, to a degree, the types of technology that were being used within the
property. This could be used to target energy efficiency advice and offers of measures, social programmes etc to householders.
Guy Herbert, general secretary of NO2ID, said: Information from smart meters might be useful to energy providers
and perhaps even their customers, but there's no reason for any public authority to have access to it - unless they've a warrant to do so. This document is a prime example of government efforts to shoehorn data sharing and feature creep into every new
policy. For example, it suggests that NHS or social services could use the system to monitor 'vulnerable householders', or that companies could use the system to spam customers with adverts for their services - having paid the government for the
privilege, no doubt.
The DECC document adds households could even have their power to some appliances turned off remotely to help the national grid if there is too much demand. It says: In terms of potentially intrusive non-physical
behaviour unrelated to data, smart metering potentially offers scope for remote intervention such as dynamic demand management, which is designed to assist management of the network and thus security of supply. This could involve direct supplier or
distribution company interface with equipment, such as refrigerators, within a property, overriding the control of the householder.
The Information Commissioner's Office said it had already discussed the issue of smart meters with some
suppliers, including Eon, Scottish Power and British Gas. A spokesman said the ICO would continue to maintain a close dialogue to ensure that their introduction does not compromise customers' privacy . He added: Important issues include what
information is stored on the meters themselves, in particular whether information identifying the householder will be held. In any event energy companies will clearly need to hold records linking meters with householders and all the information must be
held in line with the requirements of the Data Protection Act.