We have to rely on the government to look after our personal data. But would we trust companies with it too? With the roll-out of smart meters we could be giving our utility companies some extremely sensitive data.
We may have mixed views on what we want to tell the government, but in general our views on private companies holding personal data are pretty clear: we don’t like it.
And yet with the installation of millions of smart meters across the UK, we could be letting utility companies collect sensitive personal data on a half-hourly basis.
What do they know about me?
Currently, smart meters send gas and electricity readings direct to your supplier, and can also give you information that will help you lower your energy use. A great idea, and it stops the faff of having to wait around for someone to read your meter.
So presumably companies will take a reading once a month or so to keep your bill up-to-date, right? Wrong. Most companies will take half-hourly readings from your smart meter, to give almost real-time information about your energy use.
When the full roll-out happens it’ll be slightly different. Your data will be sent to a third party rather than to the company, but for now your utility company’s collecting the information.
Why is this a problem?
If I know, every 30 minutes, what energy you’re using I can tell quite a lot about your life. I know if you’re a night-shift worker, how often you go out on a Saturday and when you go on holiday.
I can also make educated guesses on more detailed things such as whether your boiler is inefficient, or whether you have an old washing machine that needs replacing.
As a company, this can translate into handy marketing messages: ‘Boiler getting old? Call us for a free consultation and we’ll help you choose a new one.’ Or: ‘You’re on holiday a lot – can we interest you in an alarm system?’
I want to choose!
So what is being done about it? Ofgem is trying to tighten up the rules by providing guidelines on how this data can be used, and we’ve sent them our suggestions to make sure consumers have choice in the matter.
But the main problem is that some energy companies have started rolling out smart meters without thinking about this issue. While the government and Ofgem are deciding how best to roll out, industry appears to be making a mass data grab while they can. Most customers haven’t been given a say in how much information the utility company collects, let alone what it’s used for.
We want to find out what you think about this, so we can make sure that the message we’re taking to companies is the right one.
Have you got a smart meter? Were you informed about the data implications before yours was installed? Were you given a choice? And most importantly – are you worried about companies collecting such detailed information about your habits and lifestyle?