Are Smart Meters really collecting ‘torrents’ of Personal Information?

Last week the Dominion Post published a front-page article stating that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) had found that smart meters were collecting a “torrent of personal information”. It appears that the media relishes creating hysteria about privacy in the hope that we all beat a retreat from digital-enabled age because our personal information is being ‘stolen’ by corporate businesses and government agencies.

So, did the Privacy Commissioner really suggest that a ‘torrent’, as in ‘a in a heavy downpour of uncontrolled personal information’, was being collected by smart meters? No (you can read the Case Note published by the OPC here).

The Privacy Commissioner actually stated that the information collected by smart meters was non-identifiable; there is no personal information collected by smart meters. They even use the definition of personal information from the Privacy Act 1993 to explain why this is the case:

“What is ‘personal information’?
Personal information is any piece of information that relates to a living, identifiable human being.”

The key word here is identifiable. Can you identify a person by looking at statistical data collected from a smart meter? No!

  • Smart meters allow the electricity provider to identify the amount of electricity consumed at an address; no identifying information is held or transmitted by the smart meter.
  • Smart meters allow the electricity provider to identify the time frame in which the electricity was consumed, but they cannot identify the individual(s) that were in the household at the time.
  • The electricity provider links a smart meter to an account to enable it to bill the account holder for the electricity usage.

The Privacy Commissioner has stated that once the information from the smart meter is associated with an account it is personal information, especially if the account holder is the only person that lives at the address, and must be protected in accordance with the Privacy Act. The reality is that this is no different than it is for account holders with traditional meters, once a meter has been read and the information is associated with an account it is considered personal information and must be appropriately protected.

Even when the information from a smart meter is associated with an account holder the electricity provider still cannot identify who is actually using the electricity, only who is paying for it and they knew that already. Even if the account holder were the only occupant of an address how would the electricity provider know? I don’t believe I have ever been asked if I was going to be the only occupant at an address when I signed up with a provider. Maybe I am wrong about this, but a straw poll in the office found that none of us could remember ever being asked about who was going to living at the address.

So what do we take from this? Nothing! Because this is all a non-issue. It appears that some outspoken individuals have been overly concerned with what the smart meters actually do, and initiated a complaints campaign to misinform the nation. If people are really that concerned about their privacy then maybe they should consider literally ‘getting off the grid’ and unsubscribe from their electricity supply and switch to self-generation.

Otherwise if you want to reduce the need for the unpredictable wallet draining ‘estimate’ and enable your electricity supplier to detect when your household, or neighbourhood has lost connectivity to the grid so that they can respond quickly, rest assured that your privacy is not being invaded.