Tens of thousands of families are being tracked in a multi-million-pound government scheme to let tech firms access their smart meter data.
At least 20 companies are being given a share of £20 million to develop products that can be used alongside smart meters.
Those involved say the aim is to help households make further energy savings — but one of the firms entrusted with taxpayers’ money has previously boasted of being able to ‘monetise’ highly personalised consumer data.
Privacy concerns: At least 20 companies are being given a share of £20 million to develop products that can be used alongside smart meters to monitor household energy usage
The same company is currently working with Amazon to enable customers to ask its virtual assistant Alexa how much power they have used and when.
The Government wants all UK homes to have a smart meter to monitor power usage by 2024, but the bodged rollout is set to cost at least £13 billion.
It is running three trials to develop technology that analyses smart meter data.
Tech firms team up with energy suppliers to bid for funds after getting consent from customers.
While the scheme is not yet commercial, the firms hope to sell their products to the wider public once trials are completed.
EDF Energy is working with British analytics company Onzo to link smart meters to Amazon’s Alexa devices in 6,000 UK households.
Earlier this year, it was revealed Amazon employees regularly listen to Alexa recordings to help develop new services.
EDF insists customers’ consent is sought by email and Amazon cannot access the data itself.
It claims that the primary purpose of the technology is to cut households’ bills by allowing customers to ask Alexa questions such as: ‘What is my energy breakdown?’
But a video by Onzo says the firm can ‘monetise’ smart meter data by offering it to third parties. It boasts it can use the data to ‘build a highly personalised profile’ that allows utility companies to execute ‘highly targeted sales campaigns’.
The video has been removed from the company’s website, but is still available on YouTube.
Onzo says it was fully compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force last year.
EDF Energy is working with British analytics company Onzo to link smart meters to Amazon’s Alexa devices in 6,000 UK households
Chief executive Steven Daniels says the video was taken down because it no longer reflected the company’s approach. He adds: ‘We never receive any personal information about consumers. The data is never shared with third parties and is never shared with Amazon.’
But consumer expert Martyn James questions whether the firms involved can be trusted to act responsibly.
‘Companies such as Amazon have shown time and again that they can’t be trusted with our private data,’ he says. ‘We need to step in with laws before it’s too late.’
There are also concerns over whether vulnerable people have a genuine choice in the matter.
One firm has developed smart meter technology that allows landlords to monitor the efficiency of heating appliances in tenants’ homes, as well as identifying mould and damp.
Switchee, the UK energy firm behind the project, says consent is sought from the tenant.
Meanwhile, another firm has created a product that allows bosses to keep tabs on staff without their consent. In one instance, a bakery boss could tell that an employee hadn’t turned up for work because an oven wasn’t on when it should have been.
Valerie Lynch, chief executive of UK consultancy AND Technology Research, says it is only the billpayer who needs to consent to the data being shared.
She adds that the billpayer is ‘the only person who sees the data’ and it is fully compliant with GDPR.
But Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, says: ‘The idea we should consent to such data surveillance for commercial benefits puts a price on the privacy of our homes.’
One of the firms involved estimated that at least 10,000 households were taking part in one of the three government trials, with the overall figure likely to be much higher.
In return for the funding, the Government is able to collate data from the projects to use for its market research into the smart meter rollout.
Robert Cheesewright, director of corporate affairs at Smart Energy GB, says: ‘You will always be asked to consent to share any information wider than with your energy supplier.
If you do not want to share your meter readings and energy patterns, you don’t have to do so.’
A spokesperson for the Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy says: ‘Smart meters will help households and small businesses cut their bills, but customers can be assured strict regulations are in place to give households firm control and peace of mind over who has access to their data.’
Amazon declined to comment.