Intelligence chiefs have warned that plans to install smart energy meters in every house will leave families vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
According to the Government’s listening agency GCHQ, the plans will create a ‘strategic vulnerability’, giving foreign computer hackers the opportunity to target individual homes, municipal buildings and even whole districts. Described by security experts as the ‘modern day equivalent of a nuclear strike’, hackers would be able to switch off meters from overseas, cutting off targets from the national grid. Privacy campaigners are already seeking to block the plans on the grounds that the meters will create a ‘spy in every home’. The meters will collect details about how people use electricity and gas, allowing snoopers to, for example, scrutinise what time someone goes to bed, washes or uses their computer. The information will be beamed to a central database held by a utility firm, making it a tempting target for hackers. A further concern is that the meters could allow individual households to be cut off by Whitehall or energy companies at times of future fuel shortages.
The Foundation for Information Policy Research think-tank, has warned the Government that it should remove the ability to switch off power remotely ‘to prevent attacks that cut off customers, whether these are committed for blackmail, or as a hostile act against Britain’s critical national infrastructure by a foreign power or a terrorist group’.
Ross Anderson, a Cambridge computer science professor and chairman of the think-tank, said: ‘GCHQ have also told us they are worried about it. ‘Once you have the ability to turn off meters remotely, then it becomes a strategic vulnerability. ‘If the Iranians or Chinese want to attack Britain, they could do so easily through smart meters. This is the modern day equivalent of a nuclear strike.’ It is understood similar warnings have been passed to ministers by security chiefs. Smart meters have already been installed in around 400,000 homes by British Gas. All utility firms will be installing meters between 2014 and 2019. Information from the 46million gas and electricity meters will be collected every 30 minutes and beamed from a box in the home to the central databases.
The plans, introduced by Ed Miliband when he was Energy Secretary and championed by Lib Dem Chris Huhne when he held the job, have been justified on the grounds that the meters will help customers cut their bills and governments meet environmental targets. But Professor Anderson also warned that governments could use the information to turn off power if the UK suffers from energy shortages in the future. Critics are also warning that corrupt officials, call centre staff or hackers could sell information to burglars or identity thieves. They are also concerned that energy companies will be able to use the data to manipulate tariffs.
A Whitehall source said: ‘This is a bonkers policy that has to be stopped before it gets out of hand. It is being sold as a consumer-friendly device to help you save power but in the wrong hands, it will be a total disaster. ‘We will see power blackouts timed with the help of the information collected from smart meters.’
Nick Pickles. of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, has written to ministers to warn them of the risks associated with smart meters. He said: ‘We are witnessing a massive intrusion into what goes on in millions of homes. ‘This comes when there is increasing surveillance of our society. Smart meters are a step towards our homes becoming the next line of attack for state snoopers.’
Anna Fielder, of watchdog Privacy International, said: ‘This could mean risks of identity theft, real time surveillance, unwanted publicity, profiling or targeting for commercial purposes and also potential discriminatory practices by power companies targeting tariffs to maximise profits. ‘As these are essentially communication devices, transmitting data over a network, there are the associated security risks if the right measures are not taken.’