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Technology: Is your communal heating system data secure?

Data security is a potential risk to tenants’ privacy many housing associations may not have expected – or even been aware of, warns Insite Energy – so they need to smarten up fast


THE Heat Networks (Metering and Billing) Regulations 2014 were introduced with the objective of empowering end users of communal heating systems to better manage their energy use through the installation of individual heat energy meters and free access to consumption data.

Two years further on, London-based district heating specialist, Insite Energy, has said it is concerned that the new regulations are posing a data security challenge to housing associations that needs to be addressed urgently.

The company’s managing director, Peter Westwood, said he is aware of several instances of customer and consumption data being shared unwittingly with companies that should not have access to it.

“The introduction of these new regulations has brought with them a challenge that will not previously have been a concern to housing associations,” he said. “I fear that all this data, which in some cases will include minute detail, such as what time tenants are taking a shower, is not always being safeguarded in the way that it should be – and Insite Energy views this as a real risk.”

According to Insite Energy, it is “vital” that housing associations and heat suppliers get to grips with the important issue of data protection. If they fail to do so, the company believes we can expect scenarios such as tenants being plagued by calls from marketing companies which may have gained access to personal data.

“This is not a ‘scaremongering story’ but I do not want our industry to become embroiled in a row about data security. I believe education is key in addressing this issue,” Westwood added.

“We are talking about data that belongs to the customer as it is ‘their heat’ but the heat supplier has to have that data to know what should be billed. Meter readings will be done by third parties who will also have access to this data. The role of heat supplier may be performed by a managing agent which means still more people have access. With any communal heating system there needs to be a clear understanding of who is using the data, for what purpose, and how it is being properly controlled.

“One of the major concerns is that ultimately, if you have more advanced systems, you can tell if people are at home or perhaps on holiday, and the type of lifestyle they lead. Increasingly, this kind of data has a market value.

“For those in our industry it is the accidental leaking of information that is the main concern at the moment. I have no evidence of data being shared maliciously, but I am aware of several instances of data being shared without full consideration of the implications.

“I am convinced that not everyone operating these systems may be aware of the obligations when handling heat data. This lack of understanding could trigger significant legal and reputational repercussions.”

Compliance is a must, Westwood stressed. “Contracts must state specifically who is allowed to see the data and the analysis and billing purposes it can be used for,” he said. “Data protection is a very important issue and people need to understand their obligations in connection with it. Housing associations have a duty of care to the people whose data they collect. With only housing associations and appointed heating and billing specialists, such as Insite Energy, needing access to data, there should be no excuse for it falling into the wrong hands.”

Insite Energy, which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and an associate member of the UK District Energy Association, is a provider of metering, billing and payment services to more than 120 communal and district heat networks and 15,000 end-customers across the UK.

The Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations 2014 require housing associations, where they have a role as a heat supplier for communal heating systems, to install heat energy meters in individual properties and provide residents with access to accurate price and energy consumption data. This applies to new developments commissioned since December 2014. For existing housing stock, an economic viability test is due to be released by the end of the year.

Since December 2014 housing associations are also obliged to provide residents of individually metered properties with actual price and energy consumption data, including comparisons with previous periods, alongside contact information for organisations providing advice on energy saving.

The EU has committed member countries to efficiency improvements of 20 %t over 2012 levels by 2020.

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