Smart Meters – coming to a boiler near you

As reported by the BBC today, Energy Secretary Ed Miliband is set to announce the government's roll-out of Smart Meters in Parliament this afternoon.

Smart_meter For those unaware, the Smart Meter is a small device which provides users with a visual display allowing them to see exactly how much electricity and gas they are using and, importantly, then relays the data straight to your energy provider. It does this through the use of mobile phone technology and is several times more accurate than our current power meters.

While I can see some of the positives in using this technology, there also number of flaws in the proposal as it stands that are making us very nervous about this announcement.

The first is the estimated cost – £9bn (or £340 per household) for an annual average saving on your electricity bill of £28. This cost will not be handled solely by the government, so our tax money might be safe(ish). But if the £9bn is being borne by the energy companies, we all know it is going to be passed on to the consumer with much higher energy bills.

The second, and the problem more relevant to Big Brother Watch, is the complete vacuum in the plans where privacy and data is concerned.

To date the focus of the government and energy companies has been on making sure the customer cannot tamper with their Smart Meter. What there isn't is any guidance on how the information is being stored and who has access to it - but I suspect we’re looking at yet another database.

Then there is the issue of the government being able to access data which can actually tell a lot about your daily routine – the switching on and off of lights indicates when you leave the house etc.

The fear is that in a few years’ time the majority of households could find their homes harbouring a device which gives the state unfettered access to our energy habits and the accompanying ability to hold us to ransom for the amounts of electricity we consume.
Radio5logo I do not accept that in order to save our environment we have to sacrifice our right to privacy. At present the Smart Meter project looks poorly thought-through and potentially very dangerous.

I was on BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday debating the merits and faults of Smart Meters with Business Correspondent, Nick Cosgrove and CEO of First:Utility, Mark Daeche. To listen to the discussion click the link below (approx 8 minutes long).

Dylan Sharpe on Radio 5 Live
By Dylan Sharpe

In the United States they have been having this debate for some time. I would urge those who are interested to read more about the privacy and intrusion fears over at Fausty's Blog.

Posted by on Dec 2, 2009 in Databases, Privacy | 13 Comments


  1. alastair
    2nd December 2009

    I’m not so sure there really genuinely is a privacy issue here. All of the information gathered by these meters is already available to the gas and electricity suppliers from the meter readings they take and from other measurements in their networks.
    Also, the notion that the mere existence of a database is in and of itself a privacy issue is plain bonkers. Actually a lot of the talk about databases is plain bonkers. Database software has for many, many, years featured such things as access control and the ability to keep an audit trail showing who accessed/changed what and when. Assuming (and I’ll grant, it *is* an assumption) that whoever sets these things up does it properly, the use of these features should in fact provide better privacy guarantees than paper documents would.
    Proper use of access controls would also have prevented the unnecessary export of data to CDs/DVDs and its subsequent loss.
    Of course, you do need competent IT staff, competent DBAs and software developers to make this all work.

  2. Vladimir Putin
    2nd December 2009

    Alastair, the information is NOT currently available to the energy companies. That’s because they don’t need it. They are only interested in overall energy consumption.
    Your electricity meter only records the total amount of electricity you use; not *when* you are using it. It’s *not* a minute-by-minute record of the number of watts you were consuming, that can be remotely accessed at any time via the mobile phone network.

  3. anonymous(posting problems)
    3rd December 2009

    Meter readings are taken occasionally and in person.
    Being able to access them anytime remotely – including by hackers and other criminals – creates problems. If they can be accessed remotely (with a few keystrokes, offical or otherwise), then many addresses can also be accessed easily at once to spy or hack – compared to a criminal (including insiders) having to physically visit each meter, which increases the probability of them getting caught, itself a deterrent to crime.
    Criminals could “steal” units of power more easily as well ie decrease their readings & increase anothers.
    People who can afford to will probably – to protect privacy about when they are home or have guests (as well as safety) – probably turn on appliances where they would not otherwise be on, so there will be incremental increases in power to offset some of the privacy issues. Of course, increased electricity bills due to this, as well as extra technology, will impact the less well off more than those better off. There is already a fuel (& utilities) poverty problem in Britain. And the less well off have less access to protecting themselves from crime, before or after, so it unfair.
    It is also unfair & unwise for anyone – whatever their financial situation – to have power companies or hackers or the government knowing their schedules and routines unnecessaily, if they have not committed a genuine crime which is being investigated. And do you trust power companies and others not to sell info about who uses which appliances and how much power and when – I imagine marketing companies as well as crooks would love access to that as well as to profit from such info? Will the police get exta resources to deal with any increases in crime resulting from this, though that won’t undo any harm done to peaople if crimes occur because the government unnecessarily implemented such technology? Will insurance go up for homeowners & businesses when crime increases – including burglaries, data theft & abuse, stalking, rape, etc. Locks on doors, guarding personal schedules & data are basics in crime prevention. Why is the government determined to prevent its citizens from healthy common-sense normal self-protection? Personal privacy is a crime deterrant.
    Can the infrastucture be protected from cyber-terrorism with this technology?
    Are there alternatives?
    Also could convenient cut-offs be used to harass dissidents or in diputes? What protection is ther to customesr from unfair or cruel cut-offs? Wht happens where someone is using a power tool or medical equipment or in the middle of a computer transaction if there is a cut-off? The easier cutting-off a customer is, the more likely unfair or potential dangerous cut-offs will increase.

  4. Kevin
    3rd December 2009

    £340 for what amounts to little more than a pocket calculator. Who makes these things and who will reap the massive profits for charging £340 for a 50p microchip? Another Government scam.

  5. alastair
    3rd December 2009

    You forget that there are additional measuring devices in the energy supply networks besides consumer meters; in practice there will already be relatively fine-grained information available to the energy suppliers (or network operators, anyway) in real time so that they can monitor for problems with their supply networks and adjust to customer demand.
    In some rural locations, it may even be sufficiently detailed that they already have real time information relating to individual customers, though it’s more likely that it’s available on aggregate.
    Additionally your remark about the mobile phone network is mischievous. The meters may use the mobile phone network to communicate, it’s true, but that does not mean that they can be “remotely accessed at any time from the mobile phone network”, or even if they can, that such access is possible without authentication. The way you word it makes it sound as if anyone with a mobile phone can get your data somehow.

  6. GP South London
    8th April 2010

    Ive noticed a few of these posts have already appeared on other website, Pro smart meters! Do we have some Government or British gas members singing there praises here?
    Smart meters will be a real problem for us all in the UK, big Brother coming by the back door!
    Plus even More wireless radiation effecting us all, Headaches, restless sleeping etc
    The Dutch would not allow this, nor the Germans or the French.
    But we are like sleeping Sheep in this country. Wake up Britain!

  7. switch energy provider
    20th June 2010

    When we moved recently I used the GreenPower guide to check out our options. Speaking with my buying power is what I love most. More ways to do this please!

  8. Scottish Power
    20th June 2010

    Good point! Thanks for sharing! We are now thinking of a way to switch the oven off completely when we’re not using it (is has a display with a clock, which of course always uses a little energy). Annoyingly, the power socket is at the back of the oven, and we can’t reach it without taking the oven out of the cupboard.

  9. Richard
    17th August 2010

    This would come in very handy but the price really does put me off. It would be great to see exactly how much electricity and gas I use but for that price, I think not.

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