Never mind the new energy meters. It’s other ‘smart’ devices at home that should really frighten you, writes Alex Brummer
My household, like 7.7 million others up and down the country, is now the proud owner of a smart meter.
It gives us a constantly updated reading of how much we are spending on electricity. We didn’t request the device; we were simply given it by our supplier EDF, the French-owned electricity giant which is one of the so-called Big Six firms serving more than 90 per cent of the country’s homes.
A display for our smart meter sits on a counter at the entrance to our kitchen, flashing 24 hours a day. The idea behind such meters was multi-fold.
Alex Brummer’s household, like 7.7 million others in the UK, has a smart meter. The meter gives a constantly updated reading of his electricity usage. But now he fears it could be open to criminals
First, by making us all more aware of how much electricity we use, the hope was that we would cut down and reduce our bills. This is particularly important when our planet is running out of fossil fuels.
Also, these electronic devices obviate the need for meter readers to visit our homes.
For my part, in keeping with the ‘nudge’ theory of economics (whereby a subtle change in policy encourages us to make decisions in our self-interest), it is already making a big difference to the way in which our household behaves.
‘A display for our smart meter sits on a counter at the entrance to our kitchen, flashing 24 hours a day. The idea behind such meters was multi-fold,’ says Alex
No longer are unwanted lights left on. Television sets are not left on standby. And, whenever possible, shorter cycles are used on the washing machine and the dishwasher. Indeed, an old-fashioned clothes horse in the utility room has taken over from the tumble dryer.
So far so good. And the Brummer household is fulfilling the hopes of the energy regulator Ofcom, encouraged by government ministers, when it set out its nationwide programme of installing smart meters to encourage energy efficiency and meet targets for lowering carbon emissions.
At the same time, businesses are being disciplined into changing consumption habits.
‘First, by making us all more aware of how much electricity we use, the hope was that we would cut down and reduce our bills. This is particularly important when our planet is running out of fossil fuels,’ he explains
But — and there is always a ‘but’ — smart meters have their critics.
Trading standards chiefs have complained that energy firms are misleading customers by wrongly saying the devices are a legal requirement. There are also worries their wireless connectivity may make them vulnerable to being hacked by criminals. And, of course, the £11billion cost of the roll-out is being passed on to customers through bills — at a cost of around £300 for every UK household.
Yet, for many, the most worrying concerns are about privacy. Smart meters may inform us about wastefulness, but like so many other electronic devices, they are capable of spying on our lifestyles.
For the simple fact is that they are mini-computers with the potential to act as spies in our homes.
Critics see them as modern-day ‘Trojan horses’ that could harvest vast amounts of data about our activities.
For example, details about when your usage is highest could be passed to a telemarketing firm which will know the best time to call your house.
There is already proof that data from smart meters is being ‘monetised’.
‘But — and there is always a ‘but’ — smart meters have their critics. Trading standards chiefs have complained that energy firms are misleading customers by wrongly saying the devices are a legal requirement,’ he explains
An analytics company has admitted it takes energy consumption data from smart meters to ‘build a highly personalised profile for every utility customer’ and can then ‘provide a direct link to appropriate third-party organisations based on the customer’s identified character’.
All this information could be misused in the wrong hands.
But despite the concerns about smart meters from trading standards officers and Citizens’ Advice groups, I am convinced our use of other electronic devices is much more of a threat to our privacy and security.
It is no exaggeration to say information about ourselves that we willingly or unwittingly hand to firms such as Apple, Amazon and Google makes us much more vulnerable.
Alex goes on: ‘There are also worries their wireless connectivity may make them vulnerable to being hacked by criminals.’
It could be used by cyber-criminals, for example, to disable home security systems.
In extremis, information could be passed to foreign, enemy powers. For the fact is that the capacity of modern devices to spy upon us is almost limitless.
We know from watching TV police dramas how detectives can use mobile phones as tracking devices, pinpointing calls, texts and locations dating back years. Amid my own social circle, at least one spouse knows, for mutual convenience, where their partner is almost every minute of the day.
If consenting adults can monitor each other in such a way, the brains of Russia’s equivalent of GCHQ and international crime gangs will find it a piece of cake.
On this basis, we should be wary of speakers using Amazon’s Alexa service or Google’s Home gizmos — devices wirelessly connected to the internet and controlled by voice to play music, set alarms, check the weather and shop online.
Having a robotic ‘friend’ in the home which can access music, answer general knowledge questions, turn on the heating and oven and write letters for you, may seem a marvel of 21st-century living.
Indeed, at a belated Burns Night gathering at the weekend, I watched as Alexa was deployed to play lines from the Scottish bard and provide pipe music to perform the reels.
But as much fun as it might be to give orders to Alexa, it should not be forgotten that when it sits in our living room or kitchen, it can pick up on every conversation.
Subsequently, it is able to send the signals back via wireless systems and Bluetooth to the vast technical centres in the desert of Nevada.
Tech: ‘Critics see them as modern-day ‘Trojan horses’ that could harvest vast amounts of data about our activities’
The chilling truth is that as users of computers, tablets, mobile phones and other electronic gadgets, we have no proper understanding of how technology giants are desperate to harvest and commercialise details about every, most private, aspect of our lives.
Via a record of our ordering history with the online giant, Amazon knows what books we have been reading, what electric shaver we use or what style of handbag we prefer.
As a result, they will bombard us with suggestions for future purchases based on our known tastes. It can be far more exploitative than a suggestion for a Margaret Atwood novel or a new pair of curling tongs. The social media giant Facebook is watching every one of its estimated two billion members’ interactions with other people, using algorithms to track friendship groups and common interests, and then selling the data to its advertising partners.
Over the years, Facebook has been accused of ‘deceiving consumers’ with its privacy promises, maintaining information about people even after they have deleted their account and keeping a log of our movements across a number of websites for 90 days.
Although Facebook has been forced to drop some of its more egregious tactics, other risks are constantly emerging.
There is already proof that data from smart meters is being ‘monetised’. An analytics company has admitted it takes energy consumption data from smart meters to ‘build a highly personalised profile for every utility customer’ and can then ‘provide a direct link to appropriate third-party organisations based on the customer’s identified character’
Our increasing reliance on online devices to do our banking has made us vulnerable to cyber-criminals who can empty a supposedly secure account.
The more we put our trust into smart devices and social media, the more we place our privacy and security at risk.
Even the most simple device, such as an electronic baby alarm, is a security risk.
Consumer magazine Which? reported that hackers search the web to find unsecured baby monitor cameras, and then exploit them. ‘They may do this for criminal gain, or just for kicks,’ it said.
Which? added gravely that you are ‘opening a gateway from your life to somewhere else’ by using one of these electronic devices.
While this is alarming for individuals, it’s potentially ruinous for businesses, especially those at the cutting edge of innovation who could see decades of research stolen by cyber thieves in seconds.
That is among the many reasons why GCHQ was so reluctant to give Chinese investors access to sophisticated control devices to be used in the new nuclear plant being built at Hinkley Point in Somerset.
In a world of Alexas and cyber-savvy criminals, where we happily tick consent boxes on websites and online contracts — allowing digital giants to access our innermost secrets — privacy is a lost cause.
Electricity smart meters, by contrast, are a relatively harmless spy in the home.
Indeed, by encouraging us to help save the planet, they are on the side of the angels compared with the fiends who run some of the world’s ruthless digital giants.
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