Smart meter data collection: Government reverses course after ORG raises concerns

Last year, on 1 October 2022 the Government quietly announced that smart meter data would be collected in order to assess the bills reduction scheme following energy price hikes last year.

The changes were flagged in privacy policies and were unaccompanied by any details or explanation of exactly why the data was being collected or how it would be used.

ORG was alarmed: this broke promises made for many years that government would not attempt to seize smart meter data. Smart meter data can reveal intimate details about people’s personal lives, revealing exactly when they are at home and the type of activities and appliances they are using. Furthermore the government asked to keep this data for ‘as long as required’ or up to ten years.

We write regarding your department’s (‘BEIS’) plans to start using energy and gas consumption data, linked to address data, and collected from smart meters (‘Smart Meter Data’) for the evaluation of the energy price guarantee scheme (the ‘EPG Scheme’). We are concerned that BEIS’s plans are not consistent with consumers’ expectations or the protection of their privacy and data rights.” (Jim Killock to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), 23 December 2023)

We wrote to the government in December to ask for clarity and continued to follow up with them. BEIS responded to us in a letter on January 26, which stated: “The scope of the data required to support the EPG scheme and how regularly it is collected and processed is still being defined and we are reviewing whether this data may be required in some instances”.

Their response failed to properly address our questions about data protection impact assessments (DPIAs), transparency, consent and the amount of personal data that would be collected. ORG wrote back, highlighting these issues and our concerns about the opacity of the plans.

Finally, in April of this year, the government announced that they were reducing the detail of the data they intend to collect. Data will now be collected on a monthly basis and the related privacy notice draws attention to individuals’ right to object.

This change is a significant improvement and reflects the concerns we have had about the necessity and proportionality of what the government is doing. However, the change does not adequately address or justify the breach of promise made to the public that the government would not use or access our smart meter data for wider purposes.

Most concerning is the future ability of campaigners to put the government under pressure on issues like this if the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill (No.2) comes into force. In this case, the government is likely to have understood that they would be in breach of current data protection legislation by asking for data that they did not really need and keeping it for too long.

In the new Bill, the government can more or less write the rules for government use of data as it wishes. The Secretary of State will be given additional powers to introduce new grounds for processing data and new exemptions that would legitimise data uses regardless of the impact this may have on individuals. The Bill removes requirements to keep Records of Processing Operations, DPIAs, and Data Protection Officers, and replaces them with less robust requirements that only need be fulfilled in limited circumstances. In addition to weakening protections, the bill will also reduce the opportunity for meaningful redress when data is misused. The Secretary of State is given new powers to issue instructions to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and to interfere with how it functions. The ICO plays a key role in the oversight of the government’s handling of data so it is vital that it is completely independent from government.

While we can claim a victory for common sense and privacy today, it may be harder in the future. Parliamentarians should take note and roll back the governments attempts to make it easier to abuse privacy and dismiss awkward questions about why they need or want data, and what they might do with it. As privacy questions emerging from artificial intelligence and other technologies increase, government transparency and data protection should be strengthened instead of eroded.

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