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Why consumers don't want a smart meter

The term smart meter usually refers to electric meters which keep detailed statistics on usage, but it can be used for gas or water meter as well performing the same job. Additionally, a lot of smart meters can also perform telemetering, in which they interface remotely with utility companies. Smart meters have been around for years. National governments have always been in favor of making them mandatory for every household, but among the consumers the controversy has never been this big.  This article is written from a Dutch utilities perspective but the reasons can be considered on a European level.  The advantages of this technology versus the drawbacks for the consumers.

Privacy issues

The greatest reason for protest lies in the privacy issues that smart meters could carry. Usage information of the households are stored with the energy companies. How much energy a household uses, when it is being used and for which reason it is being used will be shared with your energy company once a smart meter is installed in your home. This data is then used by them to make better estimation of energy buy-in and production, which will then lead to cost advantages. Whether this advantage is carried forward to lower prices the consumer is to be seen, but at least the customer will not experience the problems of estimating consumption and backbilling any longer.

Against these advantages for the energy companies and a possible reduction of energy prices is the drawback of sacrificing your privacy when this information is shared. Advocates of the smart meter say that the data will never be looked at in such a detail. But we can clearly see the parallels with for example what Google is doing with data on internet behavior of their users.  Google uses information of its users on how they use browse the net, to offer them so called 'interest based advertising'[1]. It is also Google that is a major supporter of intelligent meter reading. In the recent past the company worked on a energy monitoring tool that would give consumers access to their energy information by storing this information in the cloud. Even though the project has stopped, we can imagine the debate on the commercialization of information by Google that could have started was this program rolled out.

Most people aren't bothered about receiving targeted adverts. Even if this is based on internet behavior. Why should you be bothered? You have nothing to hide? But most people could lack seeing the big picture. Sharing energy usage information could show when we are home, when we aren't, when we sleep, when we are awake, what we use and thus tell us what we need.

Cracking the code

The energy companies aren't the only one that will have the possibility to know whether you are home or not. Smart meters communicate their reading via internet connections or straight through the electricity network. This gives malicious parties the opportunity to crack the meter remotely, without notice of the user. Even with encrypted technology securing the connection, one cannot pass the thought of hackers breaking through firewalls. Dutch energy companies have started rolling out smart meters already 5 years ago and have not seen much malicious hacking activity performed as of yet. The risk of eavesdropping and outside tampering is considered by them as low. But the number of installed smart meters is also still low; the market might not be an attractive target for criminals yet. European legislation states that in 2020 more than 80% of household will have a smart meter. By then the market will have critical mass for illegals to break the code, read your current usage and then, for example break into your home. But the impact could be bigger than this. Energy companies intend to shut down energy supply from a distant if the customer is a bad payer. You can imagine that if this power is in the wrong hands, whole neighborhoods can be brought to a standstill within seconds.

One might think that communication via the electricity network instead of over the internet could be safer, as this is owned by the energy companies themselves. But this is also a false security. With special metering devices connected to another socket, signals can be picked up and tampered. Electromagnetic radiation can also be detected and interpreted.

Slow government

The national authorities are obviously protecting the privacy of its citizens. Bills adapting to the arrival of smart meters have already been proposed, but even 5 years after the installation of the first meters, only certain legislation have actually passed. This has made the energy companies reluctant to install smart meters on a wider scale. Only in certain situations, such as new build, renovation and during regular meter replacement, does a smart meter have to be installed. A mass roll out is not expected until 2014. Which functional requirements a smart meter will have to meet (what it reads, how the data is passed, what information it should provide) has only been proposed to the Dutch house of commons[i], but has not been discussed yet.

Commotion was stirred up initially when the original bill also obliged households to install a meter in their homes. Installing the meter wasn't only mandatory, it would also accompanied by coercive measures. According to the bill a non compliancy could result in a 6 months imprisonment and a 17000 euro penalty. Meanwhile the house of lords has rejected the plans for an obligatory installation, but damage to the image of smart meters has already been done.

We can conclude that the consumer is all but ready to be sentenced to loss of freedom and privacy. More importantly, there is still a certain lack of information provided to the consumer, what is and is not possible once this intelligent meter is placed inside their homes. Until that time, the roll out is slow and only for the voluntary.

[1] https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/03/google-begins-behavioral-targeting-ad-program

[i] http://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten-en-publicaties/kamerstukken/2011/03/29/kamerbrief-ontwerpbesluit-op-afstand-uitleesbare-meetinrichtingen.html

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