On the lookout: hackers could use the information to plan burglaries
Anyone who has installed a “smart” meter to regularly monitor their electricity and gas consumption is warned that the device could increasingly become a target for hackers.
Changes to the way energy companies retrieve meter data mean hackers could use the information to plan burglaries when it indicates occupants are away. Currently, a smart meter reading is typically read monthly remotely by an energy provider. This is done by radio waves with the information sent to a hub at the company’s headquarters.
But new rules introduced by energy regulator Ofgem mean companies can now offer to take the data daily or even as often as every half hour – that’s 48 times a day. This means that criminals could potentially obtain much more detailed data on a household’s energy consumption than before.
For example, when electricity and gas consumption is low, it can indicate to a criminal that the house is likely unoccupied and therefore an easy target for burglary.
Industry experts fear it’s only a matter of time before criminals can break into smart meter systems and misuse personal data.
Nick Hunn, strategist at technology company WiFore, says: “Smart meters are vulnerable to hacking – the encrypted security measures for communication in some of them providing little more than a band-aid against cyber-hacking.
“Changes allowing companies to take more regular meter readings provide greater opportunity for criminals to work on cracking the smart meter system – and knowing when people are not home.”
Trade body Smart Energy GB insists the smart metering system in the UK has been “specifically designed to prevent hacking”. So far, there have been no known cases of hacking with smart meter data. Ofgem’s changes, announced in May, are designed to allow utility companies to introduce so-called ‘time-of-use’ tariffs – balancing charges, with higher tariffs for energy consumption during peak hours such as early evening; and the lowest at calmer times, such as the middle of the night.
Time-of-use pricing is expected to be rolled out over the next three years. Ofgem says customers will still have the option to “opt out” of this new pricing system if they don’t want to be charged in this way.
Colin Tankard is chief executive of security firm Digital Pathways. He also thinks it’s only a matter of time before criminals start breaking into smart meter systems. The regular feeding of household data, he says, will fuel this criminal activity as they seek to use it for their own gain. Tankard says: “No technology is completely secure”.
He adds: “The encryption between the smart meter and the little energy reader that customers watch to see how much energy they are using is the weakest link because it is relatively basic – and therefore easier to hack. It could be a useful tool for burglars.
Although encrypted radio waves, which companies use to protect the data they pull from smart meters, are harder to penetrate, Tankard says that with more frequent readings, criminals might think it’s worth digging into. ‘invest more time and effort to find ways to crack the.
He says the information they glean could be valuable on the Dark Web. This is where criminals exchange stolen data.
Full details of a household’s energy consumption could be sold for hundreds of pounds – with criminal gangs harvesting this information.
Chris Oakley is vice president of technical services at cybersecurity firm Netitude. He says: “Sometimes the smart meters have a problem, causing customers to get wrong bills. These issues are usually resolved quickly, but this demonstrates that these counters are vulnerable.
Consumer group Which? said households were right to have security concerns – although he added that customers can still dictate how their energy consumption data is processed and whether or not they want to install a smart meter.
Sue Davies, head of consumer protection policy, said: ‘Understandably people might worry about exactly how their energy consumption data is being used – and about the security of smart meters.
She added: “While consumers are concerned about where their smart meter data goes and how often it is taken, they have some control over what is shared.
“You can tell your gas and electricity supplier that they cannot use the data for sales and marketing – or share consumption data with others.
“You can also specify how often your meter sends data to the provider – although monthly is always the minimum.” Unless a smart meter has already been installed, customers also have the choice of whether or not to install one.
Smart Energy GB is the government funded body promoting smart meters. He told the Mail on Sunday on Friday: ‘Security has been at the heart of the smart meter rollout program since its inception – and the system has been specifically designed to prevent hacking.
He insisted that changes to the frequency of smart meter readings would not change that.
Smart Energy GB added: “Half hourly readings are an option for smart meter owners. Depending on how often a customer has agreed to share readings with their provider, a smart meter will currently send meter readings every half hour, daily or monthly.
“Hourly rates will financially reward customers who use energy when demand is low. Choosing to switch to such a tariff is entirely the choice of the consumer, not the energy supplier.
Ofgem echoed Smart Energy GB’s line, saying the changes would not affect the security of smart meters.
He claimed that a move towards ‘time of use’ tariffs could save households £4.6billion over the next two decades by encouraging people to use more energy by outside peak hours – such as late at night – and less during the day.
Ofgem said: “Smart meters give consumers the ability to view near real-time information about their energy use in pounds and pence. Access to data was a major consideration.
“Our approach is underpinned by the desire to maintain a fair and proportionate balance between the rights of individual consumers to control access to their personal data and the need to maximize the benefits that smart meters can bring.”
Among the providers offering to switch customers from monthly to daily statements is the French public company EDF. He has been sending letters to new owners over the past few weeks offering them this option.
But EDF would not comment on the number of customers agreeing to switch to more regular readings. He also wouldn’t comment on the heightened security risks surrounding the data he takes from customers.
Other providers are just as timid. British Gas would only say: “We have no immediate plans for time-of-use tariffs.
It would not provide details about the security of its smart meter reading system. Eon did not respond to requests for comment.
The £11billion project mired in controversy
Smart meters have been highly controversial since they were first installed a decade ago in an £11billion project costing each home at least £400 – a cost that still adds to already rising energy bills.
Energy companies have welcomed smart meters because it saves them money by eliminating human meter readers. But many people don’t want to install one, despite £224m of taxpayers’ money being spent to market them.
Smart meters are usually equipped with a hand-sized reader that allows a household to see, in near real time, the amount of energy being used. But only by changing habits as a result of observing this data can money be saved – the meter itself won’t lower your bills.
Concern: smart meter reader shows near real-time usage
The original target of equipping all 29 million homes with a smart meter by 2020 has been extended to 2025 – and with only around half of all homes using them, further delays are to be expected.
Early meters – labeled “Smart Metering Equipment Technical Specification 1” (SMETS1) – often became “stupid” and functioned like a conventional meter if a household switched providers.
It was not until 2018 that a new generation of smart meter – SMETS2 – was introduced, allowing households to switch providers without compromising the smart meter. Some energy customers have also been intimidated by energy suppliers with threatening letters telling them they will face higher bills if they do not switch to a smart meter.
Others, who live in rural areas, high-rise buildings and older homes with thick walls, have trouble getting the meters to work – because the radio waves of communication can’t get through.
There are also fears that smart meters used to monitor gas supplies will fail in the next few years, as many are fitted with batteries that run out after around a decade. Unless the batteries are replaced by an engineer, the smart meter could stop working, which could cut off the gas supply.
Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on it, we may earn a small commission. This helps us fund This Is Money and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any business relationship to affect our editorial independence.