Green Technology
Smart Grid Privacy Concerns Raised
Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups propose rules to protect energy data taken from homes.
March 12, 2010 by Steven Castle

It was bound to happen sooner or later. And no sooner than some limited “smart grid” programs get underway, there are security and Big Brother-like privacy concerns.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy and Technology jointly filed comments with the California Public Utilities Commission on March 9, asking for the adoption of strong rules to protect the privacy and security of customers’ energy-usage information.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is currently in the process of installing “smart meters” that will collect 750 to 3,000 data points of energy usage information per month per household, according to a press release issued by the EFF. “These meters are aimed at helping consumers monitor and control their energy usage, but right now, the program lacks critical privacy protections,” the release states.

“Without strong protections, this information can and will be repurposed by interested parties. It’s not hard to imagine a divorce lawyer subpoenaing this information, an insurance company interpreting the data in a way that allows it to penalize customers, or criminals intercepting the information to plan a burglary. Marketing companies will also desperately want to access this data to get new intimate new insights into your family’s day-to-day routine–not to mention the government, which wants to mine the data for law enforcement and other purposes,” states the EFF.

The concerns are not limited to California, the groups warn, but to residents of all states where two-way smart meters that can read energy usage are being rolled out. Projections say more than 40 million smart meters will be installed on homes in the coming years.

To alleviate these concerns and possible privacy breaches, the EFF and the Center for Democracy and Technology propose that the California Public Utilities Commission:

  • Define the scope of customer data that warrants privacy protection.
  • Adopt privacy and security principles based on Fair Information Practice Principles to ensure that smart grid proposals will provide the privacy protections required by state and federal law. Such principles include transparency, purpose specification, use limitation, and data security.
  • Require data breach notification.
  • Regular review of privacy impact assessments and the resulting privacy policies.
  • Third-party disclosure and authorization from customers.
  • Enforcement of third-party contractual obligations, such as a prohibition on non-disclosed uses of data, privacy impact assessments, data quality and integrity, data destruction, and data breach notification.

Other details in the proposal can be found here.

It is no surprise that these concerns have been raised, and it is expected that any significant smart meter and smart grid rollout with have to iron out these concerns, especially if they want homeowners to participate in programs like demand response, in which appliances like washers, dryers and the like run during non-peak times when time-of-use electricity prices are cheaper.


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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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