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Smart meters: Nothing can possibly go wrong, says gov

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A UK government minister has reassured Parliament that upcoming deployments of smart meters will be secure.

The assurances by junior energy minister Charles Hendry follow admissions by a senior civil servant at a House of Commons Public Accounts committee on Monday that the government's £12bn plan to roll out smart energy meters in the UK by 2019 might yet be shelved, depending on the outcome of a review next year. The review will focus on the business case for the deployment of smart meters but security concerns also exist.

Last year Ross Anderson, professor in security engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, warned that smart metering would introduce a "strategic vulnerability" that might be exploited by hackers to remotely switch off elements on the gas or electricity supply grid. Software errors introduced during an update also pose a risk.

Security researchers at IOActive previously highlighted (PDF) flaws in poor authentication, lack of encryption and inadequate authorisation in smart meter rollouts during a research project that looked at rollouts in the US and Europe.

Asked about these security concerns, and in particular fears that smart meter systems may not have been properly secured against hacking by third parties, Charles Hendry, minister of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, told Parliament on Wednesday that a comprehensive risk assessment programme would accompany the deployment of the technology.

The government are putting robust arrangements in place for the security of the smart metering system, which have been informed by a rigorous risk assessment. DECC has a dedicated team of security experts within the Smart Metering Implementation Programme, who perform ongoing risk assessments in order to identify the nature of possible threats, including hacking by third parties.

Security requirements are being developed to minimise: (i) the likelihood of such an event taking place, and (ii) the impact should it occur. The development of these requirements has involved extensive consultation with other government departments and relevant agencies, as well as with industry.

We have a comprehensive risk assessment and we are developing a plan for implementation, which will specify the enduring security governance roles and responsibilities to ensure risks are appropriately managed.

Smart meters introduce two-way communication between a meter and the central system of a utility absent from older analogue meters. The devices feature sensors, so they can monitor and report on the quality of gas and electricity supply, as well as how many units are consumed for billing purposes.

Utilities want to deploy smart meters because the technology will simplify the process of collecting meter reading and controlling supply at times of high demand. The kit also makes it easier to switch subscribers to higher tariffs in cases where they fail to pay their bill on time.

But for consumers the rollout of an estimated 47 million smart meters to the UK's 26 million homes is likely to cost £6 per annum per household at a time when energy prices are already rising at record rates, a trend that shows no signs of turning around anytime soon. ®

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