Smart meters will spy on us!

Smart metersEurope's privacy watchdog has reignited the debate over whether or not smart meters will monitor our behaviour at home, with the information used against us.

Smart meters are going to happen, barring any major, unexpected U-turn. Nearly every home will have one by 2019.

But there have been concerns about just what information will be held about us by energy companies and, more importantly, how that information will be used.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (the privacy regulator for the EU) has made fresh claims that the new system will 'enable massive collection of personal data, which can track what members of a household do within the privacy of their own homes.'

What is a smart meter?
A smart meter is a device installed in your home, which records your gas and electricity use.

Essentially, it's like the meter you already have, but a more intelligent model. The information gathered is automatically sent to your supplier. You will have a one meter for your electricity and another for gas.

Smart meters will start being installed in homes officially from 2014. Some energy suppliers, including British Gas and First Utility, have already started offering the new meters to customers and other suppliers are likely to follow suit before the national roll-out. It's all part of a plan to upgrade an old gas and electricity system and to make it more cost-efficient in the future.

What are the benefits?
Bills are based on accurate and up-to-date information, as opposed to estimated bills. So you only pay for what you use. It also means you don't have to provide meter readings yourself and could even see the introduction of tailor-made tariffs.

As an added bonus you also get a nice little display monitor showing you how much energy you're using, which could serve as a reminder if electricity or gas is being wasted unnecessarily.

There is also no fee to pay for having the meter installed.

So far, so good.

What about the drawbacks?
Smart meters don't instantly slash the cost of your energy bills. It's hoped that if you see what energy you are using, you will cut your usage and lower your bills that way. You can also still Compare energy tariffs here.

But rolling-out smart meters to 30 million UK homes and businesses doesn't come cheap. It's likely to cost in the region of £11.7 billion and will be paid for by the energy companies. The worry is that the cost will be met by suppliers pushing up prices. For more on this readConcerns over energy smart meters.

What's the privacy regulator worried about?
The watchdog has warned that smart meters could be used to track our patterns of behaviour. So your supplier would know when you're away on holiday or at work, if you use a special medical device or a baby monitor and how you like to spend your free time.

Try not to be alarmed – it doesn't mean a nosey-parker is watching your every move and jotting it all down in a notebook. It simply means that what you're up to can be determined by the energy you're using and when.

For example, if no energy use is recorded during the middle of the day, it's reasonable to assume you're at work. Or if there's no use for two weeks in July, chances are you're on holiday.

While you might not care if this information is recorded and stored, you might if it was used for marketing by other companies. If your energy supplier knows you typically go away every July and passes this on to a third party, the last thing you want is to be bombarded with offers for travel insurance.

The regulator also mentioned 'price discrimination', whereby a third party company could use information stored by your energy supplier against you when quoting for products and services.

What next?
There is nothing to say your information will definitely be used in this way. The data regulator simply wants the European Commission (EC) to make it crystal clear how countries can ensure smart meters are safe for customers.

The EC will be providing more definite guidelines for countries in Europe going forward and the UK Government has already proposed giving consumers more power over how much data is stored and who can access it - with the exception of basic data used for billing.

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