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 Nridigital.com

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage