Octopus Energy has told customers to unplug their laptops to fight climate change after pulling data to track how much battery life they have left.
Britain’s second largest energy supplier uses information from web browsers to urge bill payers to stop charging their devices at times when carbon emissions from the National Grid are deemed to be too high.
A pop-up feature suggests they “unplug for a few hours” if their battery is fully or nearly charged because “carbon emissions from electricity are currently high” when the grid relies more heavily on fossil fuels and less on solar or wind.
Its website says: “Did you know that coal-fired power stations produce nearly a bag of sugar’s worth (900g) of dirty carbon to deliver just one kWh of electricity?”
It comes as companies increasingly push for people to change their behaviour to combat global warming.
NatWest currently combs through customers’ accounts to calculate their carbon footprint and tells them to take emissions-cutting actions such as giving up beef and taking fewer short-haul flights.
Even restaurants have moved to remind consumers of their carbon footprint, with one organisation claiming to “counterbalance the environmental impact” of a meal through a scheme that adds a £1.23 climate levy to bills, as previously reported by The Telegraph.
Users on X, formerly Twitter, criticised Octopus for the tracker, which appears as a floating octopus character on the supplier’s website and is dubbed “Energy Constantine”.
One customer asked the company: “Can you explain why this came up on my own computer… I was briefly on your website paying a bill.”
She added: “It suggests you are monitoring my behaviour remotely [and] you feel entitled to tell me what to do in my own home.”
Octopus responded advising her to switch browsers to Apple’s Safari or use incognito mode, both of which block sites from tracking users’ data in the same way.
Hi Alex, it’s your web browser sharing your laptop’s battery status. We explain more about it here: https://t.co/LB1XGLoxSs but can always try more privacy-focused options or use incognito mode if you prefer.
— Octopus Energy (@OctopusEnergy) November 27, 2023
The supplier, which is highly recommended on Which?, describes the battery tracking prompt as “cheeky” and one of “tons of other quirky little features” it has developed for customers on its website.
“It’s a little nudge to make people aware of a small, really painless way of being slightly greener by unplugging when energy is quite carbon intensive,” its website says.
It says that the carbon-tracking pop-up works by taking “a standard bit of data from your browser” and contrasting it with carbon intensity readings from the National Grid, which show how polluting the UK’s energy system is in real time.
James Bore, a technology security consultant at Bores, said that battery data of users is readily available for most website operators to see.
He said: “All Octopus is doing is using that information which is reported to every single website on the internet.”
He said that battery tracking means web browsers can make changes to prolong battery life when they see someone is low.
“All these features were built in with good intentions,” he said, but added: “I can see that it could be seen as an intrusion, but it’s not an intrusion on their side [Octopus] because they would be getting that data reported to their website regardless.”
“It’s the lack of transparency and lack of controls that’s the problem. There are questions to be asked about personal privacy from browsers.
“I am quite glad that Octopus are so transparent about it and causing this discussion.”
Octopus Energy spokesman said its feature, available to users of Google Chrome, helped customers to “make an informed choice about their energy use” and said it was “very popular”.
They added: “It’s important to note that the battery status of a customer is only visible to the customer. Octopus Energy has no access to this information. This data is not accessible to us and we are not collecting, transferring or storing any of it.
“There are other browsers available that don’t expose battery status – including Firefox and Safari – which customers can use to access the Octopus Energy website without sharing their battery status.”
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