Data protection and the use of smart meters

The adoption of the new Federal Electricity Supply Act paved the way for the gradual liberalization of the electricity market as of 1 January 2008. The use of digital electricity meters makes it possible to store and transmit over the Internet very large quantities of data. Although this could provide electricity customers with potential savings, it also brings with it certain risks as far as privacy is concerned.

Before a pilot project involving 480 digital meters (also known as smart meters) went into operation, we were contacted by an energy supplier and asked to evaluate the project from a data protection perspective. We came to the conclusion that it would be necessary to provide households with detailed information if during the project, the intention was to record the entire load profile (i.e. electricity consumption over a specified period of time) and transmit that information to energy suppliers so as to enable them to store and evaluate the data. Electricity consumers have the right to insist that, as in the past, only their overall peak and off-peak electricity consumption be recorded, since the recording of the load profile every 15 minutes is not necessary for invoicing purposes.

Our investigation was not restricted to the pilot project. We also evaluated the data protection risks associated with the use of smart meters in view of the imminent two-stage liberalization of the electricity market. Depending on how the smart meters are configured, it is possible to obtain a more or less detailed record of the load profile (i.e. consumption patterns over a particular logging interval) of individual households and the data can be read remotely. If the interval is set at 15 minutes, that means that there will be 35,000 measurements per year. An energy use profile constructed with this data could be very useful to consumers, providing them with information about their energy consumption and potential savings. However, the data can also be used to obtain information about the consumer's business activity, production processes, personal activities, daily routine, illnesses etc. The energy use profile thus constitutes a personality profile which should not as a general rule be accessible to a third party. From our perspective, the automatic transmission of such detailed information is not absolutely necessary either for the purposes of network planning or invoicing.

Our explanations on the subject may be obtained from our website under under Topics - Data Protection - Other Issues.