The Smart Grid and Privacy

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

Smart Grid: 101

A closer look at smart grid's potential and obstacles.

The fast-growing smart grid industry offers great advantages for consumers, utilities and the environment. But the other side of the coin-and what this long Greentech feature focuses on-is the privacy concerns that accompany the move to smart energy technology.


A group of entities-from legit companies wanting to market new products to scammers and criminals looking for inside dope-see the data collected on every smart grid end point as a gold mine. The simple part of the equation is that the data must be protected carefully from the crackers.


Beyond that, it gets a bit more complex. Issues arise concerning who owns the collected data. For instance, would a utility be free to sell data to direct-marketing firms who could use it to advertise travel packages to home owners whose energy use suggests that they spend a lot of time away from home? The landscape is rife with similar questions. A Greentech survey of utilities shows a good deal of uncertainty. Roughly the same percentage think consumers own their data (39 percent), that the utilities own it (29 percent) and are unsure (32 percent).


The story puts it well:

"The information collected on a smart grid will form a library of personal information, the mishandling of which could be highly invasive of consumer privacy," said Christopher Wolf, co-author with Jules Polonetsky of a whitepaper published by the Future of Privacy Forum and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. "There will be major concerns if consumer-focused principles of transparency and control are not treated as essential design principles, from beginning to end."

In a video interview at GreenMonk
-a transcript also is provided -- Dr. Ann Cavoukian, the Information and Privacy Commissioner for Ontario, suggested that now is the time to guard privacy without compromising the legitimate needs of industry:

We're saying you can do both. We show you how to do both by embedding privacy into the design of the smart grid, and I should tell you it's at the ideal time. ... It's at its infancy, the smart grid development, starting with the smart meters, and I'm not giving you a pie in the sky. I'm telling you how to do it in a very defined way. We've worked with Hydro One, for example, and Toronto Hydro.

Some people take a pragmatic view. Mike Ahmadi, cyber security consultant and conference chairman of the Cyber Security Conference and Expo that took place in August, suggested in a MuniWireless Q&A that the focus on smart grid privacy will be loud at first, but could fade as the advantages of the technology become apparent. He drew a parallel to cell phones. People are willing to live with the fact that their location is always known, he said, because of the benefits the devices offer.


There are no secrets or surprises here. Industry, regulators, the legal community and, most of all, consumers must decide how much privacy they are willing to surrender for the great advantages of smart grid and related technology. The results of that discussion must be translated into rules, regulations, laws and operating procedures-and must be done so at the inception of smart grid development.

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