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Are smart meters a privacy risk?

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According to EU watchdogs, consumers are at considerable risk.

Smart meters are a mixed bag. On one hand, they offer the chance to record and make energy distribution systems in cities more efficient. On the other, they are easy to sabotage -- and more importantly, the general public are concerned about their rights to privacy.

As the BBC reports, European Union watchdogs are aware of these issues -- and consider smart meters to encapsulate a "considerable risk" to privacy.

In order to protect basic privacy rights of the general public, the European Data Protection Supervisor believes safeguards should be put in place quickly -- before the vast amounts of data collected by these meters becomes stored and potentially distributed by firms.

In order to collate and analyze data to produce patterns of use, efficiency levels and peak/off peak times, the technology is able to track when an energy user is at home, and more. Anything -- from cooking, playing a computer game to surfing the web -- can be tracked through the use of electricity and gas.

This is what many are worried about.

Just how far does this tracking go, and what is done with the information afterwards?

In the UK, 30 million homes are due to have the meters installed by 2019. The government believes that consumers should have the option of whether detailed information can be shared -- and on a daily basis should be able to opt-out.

In reality, this is unlikely, just as it is unlikely many consumers will remember to 'opt out' day-to-day. A recently released report (.pdf) by the EDPS proposed these 'safeguards' should go further, and that transparency is key (think tickboxes used as subtle opt-out tactics grudgingly given and you're on the right track). It suggests that "freely given, specific, informed and explicit consent" should be the key factor in maintaining consumer rights.

Smart meters may be useful in harvesting information for utility companies to supply electricity and gas more efficiency -- as well as offering lower tariffs for off-peak usage -- but they are not the only ones who can use this information.

Marketing firms could use this valuable data, and potentially criminals may be able to use the information to find out when consumers aren't at home.

The commercial value of information detailing the lifestyle and habits of a consumer is high -- and it isn't only utility companies that are interested.

Spokesperson Anna Fielder, from Privacy International, said that the report's recommendations must be considered and implemented to improve consumer safeguards. She said:

"As things stand, if you don't want your daily data uploaded you have to opt out. Suppliers will go for daily data collection and our experience tells us many people won't bother to opt out.

We think people should have the right to opt into frequent data collection at every stage."

However, it isn't just privacy concerns that are an issue in the installation of smart meters. Recently, the FBI has seen an increase in what has been coined 'smart meter hacking' -- the practice of consumers using simple methods to confuse the system and cut down their energy bills in the process.

Not such a far cry from using wires and drills to manipulate the older style of electric meter, by using magnets and simple programming, the rising number of sabotages have been damaging utility companies by approximately $400 million per year.

Image credit: Flickr

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure