We'll all have smart meters by 2020

What's a smart meter?

Ambitious plans set out by the government aims to fit every UK home with a new smart meter by 2020.

However, despite the popular adoption of smart meters – Japan, China, US, Australia, Canada and the rest of EU have some type of smart meter strategy – some strongly believe UK residents should exercise their right to refuse a smart meter or risk detrimental health benefits and their privacy being infringed.

Smart meters run wirelessly using mobile phone-type signals and other wireless technologies to send accurate and more regular meter readings to your utility company.

The aim is to do away with estimated bills and the need for physical meter readings, while providing customers with energy usage information via an In-Home Display (IHD), which can be utilised to increase energy efficiency.

 Dr Elizabeth Evans, campaigner and co-founder of Stop Smart Meters UK, believes the radiofrequency (RF) radiation omitted is harmful. She says: "This extra burden of RF radiation, on top of the wireless devices already present in a person’s home may be catastrophic to health."

As well as potentially causing cancer (Dr Evans says the World Health Organisation has listed RF radiation as a possible carcinogenic) and DNA damage in the long term, the campaign claims over exposure to the type of radiation omitted by smart meters can cause headaches, insomnia, sleep disorders, depression and arrhythmias, among other things.

Dr Evans refers to a survey of health effects reported by smart meter customers from the US, a Swedish neuroscientist who that mice continually exposed to WIFI are sterile by the fifth generation and a dramatic rise in frontal and temporal brain tumours of over 50 per cent from 1999-2009 in the UK as some of the evidence of the detrimental health effects caused by smart meters. 

Official information from Public Health England's (PHE) dispute this and say there is no convincing evidence to suggest exposure to the radio waves produced by smart meters poses any health risk and that “Using mobile phones leads to greater exposures than other radio devices in widespread use by the general public, including smart meters.”

Offering another opinion, David J. Brenner Higgins, a professor of radiation biophysics at the Center for Radiological Research Columbia University Medical Center in the US, says, while it's always hard to prove something is "safe", "wireless smart power meters result in significantly less radiofrequency radiation exposure than produced by cellphones, so it is very unlikely they would be associated with adverse health effects." This a view supported by the PHE.

If  a house hold is unconcerned by radiation from mobiles phones, the health risk factors from smart meters are unlikely to keep them up at night either, and according to many reliable sources, that’s just fine.

However, it seems fair to say we don’t yet know the full impact, if any, of the increased (and increasing) long term exposure of RF radiation may have 30 to 40 years down the line on public health, we can only go on the available information.  

Another issue regularly raised by smart meter critics is the fact that smart meters essentially put all our energy data on the internet, which has the potential to be hacked.

"There have been numerous occasions where wireless smart meters have been shown to be easily hacked; for example, a group of ethical hackers showed how easy it was to hack a Discovergy [German energy supplier] smart meter less than two years ago at a conference in Berlin," she adds.

The incident Dr Evans refers to is said to have occurred when the company allowed information gathered by its smart meters to travel over an insecure link to its servers.

Should we be concerned about would be hackers trying to tamper with our energy usage data and potentially increasing our bills or cutting us off, which if done en-masse could cause a national emergency? Not according to British Gas, who has already started fitting some smart meters.

They say: "Smart meters must meet a number of security standards specified by Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). DECC has brought in a number of security consultants to ensure data is protected and to allow draft license obligations to be prepared."

The company adds that data is stored in the meter using methods "widely used across a number of industries such as banking and telecommunications" and is sent using Advanced Encryption Standard, which is more complex than what is used for internet banking.

Only meter readings are available to a utility company, not information displayed on the IHD, and for half hourly readings, as opposed to daily or monthly, the customer needs to give permission, a spokesperson says.

Speaking to an IT security expert, David Emm of Kaspersky Lab, a worldwide IT security company, he warns:

"If someone is able to intercept such transmissions, they could gather personal information, interrupt the supply to the customer, or send false data - resulting in huge bills for those affected, or loss of revenue for suppliers.

"If the interruption of power could be done for large numbers of customers at once, this could result in an outage that, before the advent of smart meters, would have meant an attack on the power supplier's systems."

He adds that encryption of data being sent and received is the key to protecting privacy and would "greatly reduce the risk of attack".

Hacking of energy data from individual homes does seem to be a possibility, just as hacking any other computer run company is – just last week an attempt to hack a Santander bank computer was foiled with 12 arrested. It’s a constant hazard of our modern, increasingly digitalised society that for the most part is navigated relatively successfully.

It’s a question of the likelihood of this happening and trust that the relevant levels of encryption and security, as required by law, is employed and data, which will remain property of the customer, is securely stored. The DECC will not make all necessary smart meter security measures public for security reasons, which seems fair enough.

However, if anyone is worried about the potential for hacking or negative health effects there is always the option to say no to a smart meter.

In the meantime, further studies and looking to the US, which is years ahead in its smart meter roll out, will hopefully provide further clarity on these issues in the near future.

A new dawn? Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for

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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.