GCHQ has intervened to ensure that the UK's smart meter rollout will not be catastrophically insecure and wide open to hacking.
The agency got involved after seeing plans by the companies behind the scheme to use a single decryption key across the whole of the network for communications between smart meters and providers.
Just one decryption key effectively securing some 53 million smart meters in the UK could allow a hacker to cause chaos across the network by shutting off power to people's homes.
The plans would have left the UK's power and gas infrastructure wide open to hacking, as the scheme doesn't just communicate power use for the purpose of billing but can restrict consumption and, if necessary, cut off supply.
The UK's smart metering plans have been criticised for being expensive and using proprietary technology that will make it more difficult and costly for customers to tap their own smart meters to find out how much gas and electricity they are using.
Nick Hunn, director of WiFore Consulting, told Computing 15 months ago that the system cooked up between the utilities and meter industries is "fiendishly complicated".
"Too many cooks have ratcheted up the technical complexity to the point where it is no longer fit for purpose. As a result, it's lining up to be the next major government IT disaster," he said.
Hunn suggested that old-style gas and electricity meter makers in the UK are typically metal bashers rather than technology companies, which may account for the schoolboy error in their security plans. Dr Ian Levy, in an interview cited by The Financial Times, agreed that this may be the case.
"The guys making the meters are really good at making meters, but they might not know a lot about making them secure. They guys making head-end systems know a lot about making them secure, but not about what vulnerabilities might be built into them," he said.
Most other countries across the world rolling out smart meters have gone for far less ambitious and expensive schemes, largely focusing on communicating data back to base securely in a bid to identify theft and fraud. This has contributed to big savings in places like India and Brazil where power theft is rife.
Savings in the UK are expected to come from consumers using the information generated by smart meters to cut down on wasteful consumption.
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