Smart meters ‘could be spy in the home’ [says Doretta Cocks]

Well, in case anyone thinks otherwise, that last post was in fact tongue in cheek. I am not abandoning solar any time soon.  Sadly the same cannot be said for the headline above – it appeared in the Daily Telegraph last year (here) – not the Doretta Cocks bit, but more of her later.

I have been asking one or two questions in Select Committee and elsewhere over the last year about security aspects of the proposed smart meter roll out.  There are real concerns, I think, which need to be addressed as the roll out takes place. In particular, there will need to be some transparent and workable protocols in place about data sharing and the handling of what will be a new level of capturable data arising from installation that will be sending streams of data to a central point, or at least, broadcasting to whoever wants to hear about the energy use of a household.  The malleability of this data is a key benefit of smart meters – they will enable real time billing, instant recalibration of tariffs, control of what might be called ‘domestic energy policy’ by the householder; and undoubtedly all this will lead to a far more efficient use of  domestic energy both in supply and use.

But this isn’t how some see it.  I had predicted that it wouldn’t be very long before campaigns started claiming that smart meters would be a ‘spy in the home’ just as certain newspapers had campaigned against ‘pay as you throw’ charges for waste disposal on the grounds that it would mean the installation of a ‘spy in the bin’ chip to force all of us to be sensible about our waste habits. How wrong I was. People were already at it and are now to an extent I had not realised. There has been a strong campaign running in California, for example, to expose the ‘dark side’ of  smart meters, and the distribution of stickers to place on your meter stating that under no circumstances would you countenance having your present meter replaced.

The concerns presented relate to the more familiar ‘harmful radiation’ line but also to privacy and data security issues. Much of it is paranoid fluff, but there is a core of concern that strikes a chord – and that chord is now being played in the UK.  The Telegraph article conjures up a wonderfully wacky link between the ‘spy in the bin’ campaign and what might happen with smart meters. It quotes  the aforementioned Doretta Cocks (yes, that is her real name), billed as the ‘founder of the Campaign for Weekly Waste Collection’ (don’t ask) who says ‘we’re already under surveillance for what we put outside the house in bins and now we could be watched for what we put inside it as well’.

The latest organisation to take up the cudgel is ‘Big Brother Watch’ – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Taxpayers’ Alliance (aside: it would be a good for transparency and the end of secrecy in public life if the Taxpayers’ Alliance told us all who is providing their ample funds, for more on this visit The Other Taxpayers’ Alliance). They’ve been posting away on the alleged smart meter privacy invasion for some time, and indeed were, earlier this year ‘very encouraged’ by the Dutch Government’s halt to mandatory smart meter roll out when privacy issues were raised. They want to stop smart meters in the UK too: ‘if enough noise is made about a civil liberties issue, eventually politicians will fold’.

And that isn’t impossible. After all, it was among other things, a virulent campaign on ‘spy in the bin’ by some newspapers aided by the then Conservative opposition that probably caused the withdrawal of the pilot schemes to advance Councils powers to introduce ‘pay as you throw’ measures to limit waste and improve its recycling rate. One bonus, I suppose is that the politician at the forefront of urging on the ‘spy in the bin’ smear was one Eric Pickles. As he is now a senior and responsible Government minister I imagine he might be more reluctant to capsize another department’s policy….

The answer to this is to get it as right as possible on the data security front at the earliest possible stage. There are substantial differences between the UK proposals and the US and Dutch experiences for example, and there are good and sustainable answers to serious and sensible concerns on privacy and consumer protection such as those raised by Consumer Focus (here) It is worth investing time and energy in doing this now: a roll-out that sputters to a halt halfway through because the answers have not been provided or protocols to provide them are missing would be a disaster on many different levels.

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