Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Smart meter dangers

Derek McAuley surprised me last night when he declared he'd be ready to "mount the barricades" over smart power meters. He's a full-fledged Professor of Digital Economy at Nottingham University, and lectures at Cambridge University ... His credentials are long and impressive and, tall but mild-mannered, he doesn't come across as a revolutionary.

A great friend of mine had pulled me along to listen to the Professor's talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival on The Future of Technology. All was interesting, engaging, informative and helpful. But then, in talking about the introduction of smart power meters like those being advertised on British TV right now by national utility suppliers, the Prof. declared that he'd be prepared to "man the barricades" if anyone tried to force him to take one!

It seemed an extreme reaction, though I'd heard there's a fear that hackers or terrorists might find a way to take control of smart power meter grids with a virus or something, either shutting off power at will, or causing some catastrophic failure straight out of the plot of a Die Hard franchise movie.

And it's obvious that technology like this is great when it works, but what's the fall-back if there's a failure? Another of the talks at the Science Festival yesterday was about our reliance on GPS...

However, it seems I'd missed equally big issues around tampering and privacy concerns: by monitoring and reporting energy usage every few minutes, smart meters effectively report the likely occupancy and activity levels within a building. The Professor told a story of how his research assistant was accused of not having had a shower that morning when she arrived at the lab: it turned out that the sensor was at fault and she was mortified!

More seriously, it was obvious from his sample graph of a building's energy usage over a week or a day when it was empty and ripe for burglary. The Dutch government had intended to make smart meters compulsory by 2013 but had to back down in 2009 over similar privacy concerns.

It still seems to me that the privacy concerns around smart meters are trivial by comparison with the ever-present mobile phones that track our every move.

The bottom line is the theme that just because something can be done, doesn't mean to say that it should be done. As a global society we have essentially 'bet the ranch' on technology. There's no going back. And there's no Plan B. However, despite the relentless and frenetic pace of change all around us, we need to find a way to think around the issues, and second-guess the potential negative impact of the innovations we create. Otherwise, who knows when and where the tipping point will occur and barricades will be manned for real?
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