So smart meters send data on electricity consumption to smart grids enabled with demand response that balance everything to make the most of renewable energy and empower consumers with solar panels to sell excess electricity back to the grid. Sounds wonderful but what about privacy?
“The two types of data collected by smart grid technologies are personally identifiable information and consumer-specific energy usage data. Personally identifiable information includes an individual’s name, address and telephone number,” explains Constance Douris. “An example of consumer-specific energy usage data is the total electricity used at various times in a day. This kind of information, fused with unique load signatures generated by electrical appliances, could be used for legal and illegal real-time surveillance.”
Consider your activities at home, whether it is cooking, cleaning or watching tv, it all provides an energy signature. Perhaps just as important is the energy signature showing that you are not at home. So whether you’re worried about a nosey government tracking your movement, an evil corporation learning your habits, or a tech savvy thief looking for a chance to break into your home – it is all possible. It is also possible to prevent such situations.
“Methods to remove personal information from electricity usage data already exist. Solutions include aggregation, encryption and steganography. However, anonymizing data requires computational time and effort. There are also additional costs to store, process and transfer large amounts of information. How these extra expenses will be paid for must be determined,” Douris highlights within a new report for the Lexington Institute.
— Constance Douris (@CVDouris) July 19, 2017
Investment in smart meters and smart grids was prioritized in order to improve load balancing, reducing strain on the grid, and to improve the accuracy of pricing but, as is often the case, not to secure consumer privacy. Data exists that not only violates some of the secrecy of your behavior at home but also has serious implications for the safety of your family and the security of your possessions. You shouldn’t be too worried yet though, it seems that no one is using the data, for bad or even for good.
“Utilities are hesitant to share usage data even though it provides many benefits to customers, businesses and operators of the electric grid. This reluctance is due to the costs required to process and transfer such data. In addition, utilities may be at legal risk if information is improperly disclosed or if a customer’s privacy is violated. Due to these obstacles, electricity data is underutilized,” explains Douris.
It is almost more frustrating that consumer energy data is not being properly used to improve the system, nor being sold to appropriate buyers for profit, than the fact that this personal data is not suitably secure. This seemingly useless situation for all parties appears to be a result of slow and insufficient policy. This valuable data should be being used by someone to improve our energy system, and preferably in a way that protects the privacy of the end user.
“Consumer usage data is so valuable that some predict it eventually may be worth more than the distribution of electricity. Even so, over half of states in the US lack policy for electricity data access. Without guidelines, customers, businesses and grid operators lack the information they need to make better decisions on the grid. In addition, personal information potentially may be shared in a manner not desired by customers,” expressed Douris in the report entitled Balancing Smart Grid Data And Consumer Privacy.
Douris is eager to see an end to this illogical and dangerous smart grid data situation. As is too often the case with the smart technology revolution, privacy is an afterthought and only resolved once a breach happens. Smart grid data is simply too valuable not to share and too personal not to protect. There are policy formats that can provide solutions to this quandary and thankfully Douris believes we are beginning to see such initiatives start to take shape.
“The grid must encourage innovation and make electricity usage available to customers and businesses all while respecting consumers’ personal privacy and security. States that have implemented such policies include California, Texas, Illinois and Vermont. These actions will be analyzed and compared to inform other states of elements they could incorporate into future policies to allow customers, businesses and grid operators access to critical data,” she concludes.