Smart Meters: Giving Away Your Secrets to Save Energy?

Smart meters are set to become an increasingly familiar item in our homes, as energy companies start a major campaign to roll out these devices across the country from 2015, as part of a Government mandated programme to install 53 million of them by 2020.

Billed as the ‘next generation’ of gas and electric meters and a major boost to energy saving, they come with a whole host of intelligent functions built-in, which offer unprecedented levels of convenience and ease of use for suppliers and customers alike – but not everyone is happy with the idea. A report from the EU Data Watchdog in 2012 concluded that Smart Meters represent a significant risk to personal data security, while some in the defence and intelligence community fear the potential danger of web-enabling the nation’s critical infrastructure, in this age of burgeoning cyber-terrorism.

So, are Smart Meters the must-have gadget of the future, or another example of Big Brother’s growing surveillance? Just what does lie behind these controversial devices? As Obi-Wan Kenobi once (fictitiously) said, many of the truths we cling to most dearly, depend on our point of view.

Smart benefits

There is no doubt that Smart Meters represent a huge functionality leap from their current ‘dumb’ counterparts.

  • They can display your usage in real time and in real money
  • Give households the ability to keep tabs on mounting bills quickly and simply
  • Because they communicate directly with the energy company’s HQ, there will be no more missed meter-readers or estimated bills!

Perhaps in the future they could even allow devices such as washing machines or electric car rechargers to switch on automatically, when energy prices are cheapest.

Aren’t the advantages just marginal though?

Opponents argue however, that these are pretty marginal advantages; already you can buy energy monitors very cheaply, that will enable you to keep track of your usage. Sending in your own readings by ‘phone or the internet is a long established practice, and timers can do today what smart meters only promise for tomorrow. The benefits, many argue, do not outweigh the costs.

Secrets Revealed

Smart metering carries huge risks to personal data protection, it enables a vast amount of information to be collected routinely from households and potentially could allow what individual members of a household do within the privacy of their own homes, to be tracked.

If someone you had just bumped into came up with that sort of thing, you might be forgiven for putting them down as a bit of a conspiracy theorist – but this was what the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) had to say in his report on plans to roll out the technology across the EU. Even so, it does sound a little far-fetched, surely? After all, it’s only a meter…well, not quite; those in the know will tell you, it all comes down to granularity.

The traditional model – a meter reader calling once or twice a year – allows your supplier to bill you accurately, but doesn’t really say much about you, or your household, beyond how much energy you collectively use. Collect readings every 15 minutes, night and day, year after year and it doesn’t take much imagination to see that what goes on behind your front door suddenly becomes a lot more transparent.

With access to that data, it becomes a fairly simple matter to know very precisely when something is switched on, or off; it might also be possible to identify exactly what was being used – and records like that over the months could very soon build up a fairly detailed picture of household behaviour.

It led the EDPS to highlight a number of concerns; knowing when a house is regularly empty might be of interest to criminals; the personal profiles being generated might be used commercially; health issues might be inferred if someone was known to be using a particular type of medical device.

A bogus threat?

Yes, but hang on a minute. Just because it might conceivably happen, that doesn’t mean that it will – right?

Wrong, actually; it already has. At the 28th Chaos Computing Congress, ‘White Hat’ hackers reported that they had been able to intercept unencrypted data travelling from Smart Meters which allowed them not only to work out if houses were occupied at the time – but also what those occupants were watching on TV!

Frightening levels of detail

Apparently, the changing brightness of a picture on plasma-screen or LCD sets is mirrored in the TV’s power-consumption levels – and that gives every programme its own distinctive electrical signature. With the power company in question taking readings every two seconds (yes, two seconds!), matching household consumption patterns to on-screen viewing becomes a simple exercise for anyone with enough know-how and a handy laptop.

Your data, your choice

So, where does that leave us? Can smart meters help you save energy and the UK achieve its carbon reduction target? Yes, they can. Will you be giving away at least some level of ‘extra’ information about your household into the bargain? Yes, you will.

How you feel about that, is of course, up to you. The manufacturers of smart meters quite rightly point out that at least as much information is regularly harvested by the likes of Google, insurance companies and your favourite supermarket cards or loyalty programmes – and many people routinely give away far more on Facebook.

All of that is, of course, true, but for many of those who oppose smart meters it is about a much more simple principle – the right to choose. You can avoid overly intrusive companies, and you don’t have to use particular credit cards or loyalty schemes; being forced to host an enforced ‘spy’ in your own home is something different entirely. It’s your data, they argue; it should be your choice.

In the end, however, the whole debate may itself be superseded by technology. Waiting in the wings are solutions which might see the whole idea of ‘meters’ consigned to the history books, as appliances and devices start to communicate directly with a smart grid, taking load on demand and reporting their own usage without the need for any kind of separate meter at all.

Heaven, or hell? That old Jedi was right; it really does depend on your point of view.