I've written quite extensively on the growing debate over smart electricity meters and the potential threat they pose to privacy (if we don't take the proper precautions). To read any or all of those, just click here.
At this moment, Public Utilities Commission's (PUC) across the country are considering how to implement such a grid, and in response to a rulemaking by the California PUC, and the lack of attention being paid to the concerns of privacy advocates to date on this issue, the Consumer Federation of California (CFC) recently joined The Utilities Reform Network (TURN) in urging the Commission to allow for a more comprehensive review and debate regarding such concerns.
For today, I noticed an article from a Canadian news site called CBN News, entitled Smart grid could turn appliances into spies, experts warn" that I want to share.
Paul Gallant reports:
Do you want your fridge talking about you behind your back?
With the rapid adoption of a North American "smart grid" aimed at helping consumers conserve electricity, it's also possible that smart appliances will be able to transmit information about their activities (and yours) through the power lines. Your electricity utility may not yet be able to determine when you snack, do laundry or shower, but privacy advocates are sounding the alarm that systems need to be put in place to guard details about a household's electricity usage from prying eyes.
In its most basic form, the smart grid allows utilities to read meters without sending out an employee; instead the meters send a reading back to the utility automatically. But Ontario's push into smart meters has been aimed at changing consumer behaviour, so the launch in that province goes further.
Many households with smart meters can already go online and log in to an energy-use account to see how much energy they used during a specific time period. By giving people more detailed information about their electricity usage, the assumption is that they will be willing to reduce their consumption or re-schedule it to off-peak hours when the rate may be cheaper.
Things get trickier from a privacy perspective if the system offers real-time statistics, since electricity use is a good indication of whether someone is at home at that very moment and what they are doing - if they're awake or asleep, for example.
Eventually, utilities will have the ability to allow consumers to see how their energy use compares to that of their neighbours, information that, if not sufficiently protected, could reveal many things about your neighbours' comings and goings as well.
Utilities promise this data will be encrypted and assigned an anonymous number that can't be tracked back to an individual customer. But the cyber security co-ordination task group that has been addressing smart grid privacy concerns in the U.S. has warned, "there is a lack of formal privacy policies, standards, or procedures by entities who are involved in the smart grid and collect information." It added that, "comprehensive and consistent definitions of personally identifiable information do not generally exist in the utility industry."
Hydro One has policies in place that prohibit it from selling customer information to third parties. But the pressure for third-parties to access power-usage information will only increase.
Many companies are working on new products — electric vehicles, smart appliances and energy-production systems like solar panels — that have the potential to take advantage of the smart grid's two-way communication system to send usage information from individual appliances and devices to a central office where it can be accessed by the utility or by the user. Whirlpool Corp., for example, announced in January it would produce one million smart appliances by the end of 2011 and make all its appliances smart grid-compatible by the end of 2015.
Device-specific information would be useful to the consumer to get credit, for example, if they were feeding electricity back into the grid from solar panels or a windmill. Some appliances could adjust their own energy consumption according to the time of day or by monitoring what other appliances were running in the home.
This kind of information could help make a home more efficient in terms of energy consumption, but it would also be tempting information for marketers, governments and even thieves. The Future of Privacy report suggests that extensive information could be gleaned from the grid — everything from when you shower or watch TV to which appliances and gadgets you have in your home, and when you use them.
The report urges that any third-party access to the information should not be a deal between the utilities and the third parties, but between the consumers and the third parties. As well, third parties should agree not to correlate data with data obtained from other sources or the individual, without the consent of the individual.
For more information on this subject, and more of my thoughts, check out my article The Privacy Implications and Challenges of a Smart Grid Electrical System.