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October 19, 2022

Government accused of ‘Kafkaesque’ collection of energy price guarantee data

The government says it needs the data to check for fraud and properly manage the scheme. Campaigners aren't convinced.

By Ryan Morrison

The UK government will be collecting energy use data on users including personally identifiable information as part of its Energy Price Guarantee (EPG) Scheme, which is designed to keep household energy bills down. It says this is to prevent fraud and monitor the scheme, but campaigners describe it as “Kafkaesque”.

As part of its Energy Price Guarantee Scheme the government will collect and store energy usage data for up to 10 years (Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)
As part of its Energy Price Guarantee Scheme, the government will collect and store energy usage data for up to ten years. (Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

The price guarantee scheme is designed to provide discounts on energy bills to households and businesses to minimise the impact of spiralling gas prices. It was set to last two years, but was limited to six months by new chancellor Jeremy Hunt in his emergency statement on Monday.

Data being collected by the government as part of this scheme goes beyond just the latest meter readings and includes identity data and location.

It will include your meter number, property reference number, postcode, energy consumption, data on the meter itself, how the meter point is billed, your tariff, name, date of birth, address, email address and preferred communication method with your energy provider.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is managing the scheme and said it needed the data “to monitor the progress and operational delivery of the EPG, conduct financial checks on EPG payments and to evaluate the scheme to understand its impact and to inform future government policy”.

Despite the scheme itself only lasting six months, officials confirmed data will be held for up to ten years after it is collected. BEIS officials wrote in a statement: “We recognise that this maximum retention period is longer than energy suppliers will hold this data, which reflects the additional purposes for which BEIS is collecting and processing this data.”

This information will come from a range of sources including electricity supplies and the scheme administrators, non-profit energy market observer Elexon and data collector Xoserve, both of which will also be given access to existing government datasets.

Government ‘obsessed with snooping’

Information gathered by the scheme will be provided to other government departments including executive agencies as required, local authorities, law enforcement in the UK and overseas, regulatory bodies, debt collection agencies, credit reference agencies and anti-fraud organisations.

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Al Ghaff, chief operating officer of the privacy campaigning organisation, the Open Rights Group, described this as a “Kafkaesque plan”, which is “the latest in a series of actions committed by a government obsessed with snooping on people”.

He questioned why the government needed to hold the data on gas and electricity meter readings for a decade when the scheme was only scheduled to last six months.

Tech Monitor has put this question to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy but as of the time of publication has not received a response.

“Government plans to collect fully identified data such as name, address, email, date of birth, and ‘communications data’, and to share it across government and with third parties such as debt collection agencies and credit reference agencies, appears to violate the fairness, lawfulness, purpose limitation, minimisation, and storage limitation principles of data protection law,” said Ghaff in an emailed statement.

BEIS says it has a legal basis for collecting data in this way as it is necessary for the “performance of a task carried out in the public interest” and in the “exercise of official authority vested in the secretary of state for BEIS”.

Ghaff said the level of collection and time held goes beyond what is necessary, adding it “should be viewed as part of a wider plan by this government aimed at undermining UK citizens’ fundamental rights and liberties.

“From its Online Safety Bill which is nothing short of an Orwellian censorship machine to its efforts to destroy data protection laws which protect us all from abuse and discrimination,” he said. “This is yet another sign that this government is hell-bent on enshrining discrimination, bias, prejudice, and surveillance into UK law.”

Tech Monitor has previously reported on similarly controversial plans from the Department for Education to collect school attendance data. Under a new scheme launched this term, the data is being collected and held for 66 years, a move campaigners described as “unnecessary and disproportionate”.

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