Cyber Crime Risk Posed by Smart Meters Has Been Exaggerated

With the Government proposing to roll out smart meters to all British homes by 2020, software specialists SQS have commissioned a survey to find out what people really think of them of the new technology. It turns out that what a lot of people (30%) worry about is that it leaves them at a greater risk of cybercrime, hacking and theft of personal details.

The smart meter initiative sees energy companies installing new meters into homes across the nation to measure electricity and gas usage. These new smart meters are more sophisticated than the old ones, coming with a separate, portable display for home owners as well as the meter itself. The easy to read display will show how much power has been used, and how much it is costing them. Customers will see the total rising when they use an appliance, meaning that they can work out roughly how much that appliance or gadget costs per use.

The part which worries many consumers is that information is not only available at a glance to themselves, but regularly fed back to energy companies in an automatic process. The claim by energy companies is that this will cut down on estimated bills and time wasted by customers waiting in for someone to read the meter, amongst other benefits. In an unofficial straw poll, potential users say that their main concern with this is that they just don’t want their company to know exactly how often they boil their kettle, or use their washing machine, or whatever else they’re doing that uses gas or electricity. An extension of this is that they feel that if this information is transmitted to the energy company in an insecure fashion, other people could intercept it and use it for their own criminal purposes, altering or selling data intended to be private.

The fact is that the information which is sent to the company is not very sophisticated at all. The information that they receive is that customer x used y amount of electricity on z day or at z time. Now personally, you would know that you were making a cup of tea while browsing online at that time, and as well as that you were charging your phone and had the heater on. So if you looked at your smart meter display before you put the kettle on and again afterwards, and notice it jumped 7p in that time, you could deduce that boiling the kettle costs about five or six pence. But the electricity company knows none of this. They can see that you spent 7p on electricity at 8pm on that day, but there is no background data around that.

In addition to this, the smart meters have no access to other information. They do not store your bank account details, and billing is dealt with separately. There is no connection to your email address. So the only risk is specifically relating to your energy supply. The worry is that someone with ill intentions may tamper with the information — for example, they may make it look as if you’ve used more energy than you have, resulting in big bills. The risk of this is fairly small, however, as it’s difficult to imagine any personal gain in someone doing this.

However, government ministers have acknowledged that high security must be put in place to prevent this type of activity. At the beginning of the roll out Energy and Climate Change minister Baroness Verma told the BBC the government was working with the National Technical Authority on security issues.

"It’s right that we look at security because security will be a key issue for everyone, but the way we’ve done it and the way we expect industry to respond to it is by making sure they are working to very vigorous and robust measurements to ensure that consumers’ privacy and data are absolutely secure," she said.

"[Manufacturers] will have to produce annual audits and make sure their own risk assessments are meeting the standards we are putting into place."

By Julia Hudson, a professional writer and editor reporting on everything from technology to travel.

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