While the health impacts of smart meters and wireless technology could be debated for years without common ground being found, the issue of privacy – in my mind – is pretty clear cut.
With a smart meter installed on your home your power firm will be able to track and spot trends in your daily power usage. And if that trend changes they will know something has changed in your home.
With this in mind I wrote to Marie Shroff, the privacy commissioner here in New Zealand. Surely, with her interest in our privacy, she would be beating down the door of the power firms to stop them spying on us.
Apparently not. Indeed, from the reply I got to an email raising privacy concerns, the privacy commission basically supports the power firms.
Below is the reply I got from a policy adviser at the privacy commission on 26 October 2012.
Thank you for your inquiry. I’ve had it passed on to me by our enquiries team. We are aware of developments in smart/advanced metering in the electricity sector in New Zealand and we are following them with interest.
Usage information collected from residential customers is personal information under the Privacy Act and electricity companies have obligations under the Act to ensure that this information is appropriately stored and handled.
Smart meters automate the collection process, and allow for the collection of more detailed information about electricity use.
Power companies may therefore need to take additional care in how they look after that information, and to tell consumers how it will be used.
Nevertheless, we accept that, in general, power companies have good business reasons for installing smart meters, and legitimate uses for the more detailed information those meters provide.
If you have not done so already, I suggest you contact the Privacy Officer for your provider to discuss your concerns about smart metering and inquire how they intend to manage their privacy obligations (section 23 of the Privacy Act requires all agencies to have a Privacy Officer).
Relevant to the concerns you’ve expressed below, particular questions you may ask could include:
- How will they protect the information from being used or accessed by anyone other than the customer or the billing team at the lines company?
- Will they use the energy consumption information for purposes other than billing? If so, what are these?
The introduction of smart appliances – and how this will interact with smart metering technology – as you’ve noted in your email is speculative at present. That makes it a bit hard for us to develop a firm view on at this point. It’s definitely something we are keeping an eye on as the technology develops though.
I hope this information is of use to you.
Policy Adviser (Technology)
Office of the Privacy Commissioner – Te Mana Matapono Matatapu
PO Box 10094 Wellington 6143
I have replied with the following:
Further to your email, can you please answer the two questions below:
1) You say power companies have good business reasons for installing smart meters. Can you explain what you believe those reasons are?
2) You say power firms have legitimate uses for the more detailed information those meters provide. What uses are you referring to?
My view is that the power companies should only collect the data it needs to bill us correctly, and that is essentially six or so numbers once a month – the meter reading. They have no right to collect anything other than that. Period.
For those concerned about privacy issues with regard smart meters, it is up to you as to what you do next. But a polite email to the privacy commissioner may be a good start. Let me know how you get on via the contact form.