Growth in the Smart Grid Means Less Privacy

Carl Weinschenk

One aspect of the drive for smart grids, which got a big boost earlier this month from the introduction of the National Broadband Plan, is what it will mean for privacy.


The fear is that collecting, processing and storing a huge amount of information on the habits of just about every home in America will lead to lapses, and the lapses will lead to abuse. While the dangers of online electrical data aren't as obvious as e-health data, experts insist that it is a serious matter that demands attention.


This very interesting Earth2Tech piece describes the problem. Thieves could read daily energy records and identify homes in which the occupants are likely away. Also, such data, if it is not covered by adequate rules and laws, could be sold to third parties and used for targeted-and unwanted-advertising. That invariably will lead to scams.


The New York Times details a filing made to the California Public Utilities Commission by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology that crystallized the concerns. The California angle is that $4.5 billion from the stimulus package will be used for smart grid in the state, making it important to deal with privacy issues there in the short term.


The filing points out that beyond indicating when people are on vacation, collection of electronic data as often as 3,000 times a month can create a reliable picture of when the house is empty on a daily basis. The filing calls for more control to be given to consumers concerning precisely what data is collected and what is done with it. The filing suggests that utilities be made responsible for what third parties do with the data. The Earth2Tech piece says, however, that utilities don't want that responsibility.


The smart grid is a very complex entity with different systems that do many different things. This is obvious, but suggests something that is a less so: Different levels of private information are necessary depending on what operation is being performed. Smart Grid News' Jack Danahy suggests a four-point hierarchy for the treatment of data. No data, he suggests, should be shared unless necessary; identifying information should not be included with the data unless necessary; no data should be stored unless necessary and security should be at a level commensurate with the value of the data-not the likelihood of an attack or compromise.


Privacy will become a big issue as e-health and smart grid begin rolling out in earnest and people realize just how much valuable information about themselves and their families is floating around various electronic networks. It will be interesting to see whether serious objections are raised and how the energy industry reacts.

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Mar 24, 2010 12:00 PM Dave Borgioli Dave Borgioli  says:

This is an excellent article, albeit a brief one.  I would only add that it's not inappropriate to add that the government can and almost certainly will abuse this data.  Take your car as just one example.  They can and have used EZPass information against people.  They've also gone into the "black box" (OBDII) of your engine to collect data to use against people.


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