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Watchdog warns smart meters threaten privacy

By Katie Anderson on July 3, 2012

A supervisory body has warned that the introduction of smart meters across Europe threatens the privacy of millions of people.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) insisted that smart meters are able to provide households with an opportunity to save money on energy bills, but it added that the technology being rolled out across Europe would give rise to a “massive collection of personal data”.

The independent authority urged caution, noting that smart meters would be able to monitor households on an unprecedented level, which is perhaps why companies such as Google have shown a desire to develop applications for smart-meter technology.

According to the Guardian, the EDPS fears that data mining could compromise the privacy of households. In theory, companies will be able to monitor every aspect of a household’s energy usage, from how often a kettle is boiled to when occupants watch television. Technology based on smart meters might also enable energy suppliers and third-party firms to keep track of when people are at home, when they wake up and when they go to sleep.

The EDPS explained that smart meters would be capable of tracking what “households do within the privacy of their own homes, whether they are away on holiday or at work, if someone uses a specific medical device or a baby monitor, or how they spend their free time”.

None of this is likely to cause too much concern for the average British household. As the cost of electricity and gas central heating rises, many people are struggling to afford their energy bills. Efforts to reduce consumption are therefore well received by most households. The question is whether energy suppliers or third-party firms will exploit the data generated by smart meters in a manner that could threaten privacy.

The Assistant Director of the EDPS, Giovanni Buttarelli, suspects some suppliers might use the information to unfairly adjust prices. Mr Buttarelli said: “Profiles can be used for many other purposes, including marketing, advertising and price discrimination by third parties”.

The latest generation of smart meters will be rolled out across the UK from 2014, with installations expected to be completed within a five-year period.