New electricity grids may be smart, but not so private
By Mark Jaffe
The Denver Post
Posted: 05/18/2010 01:00:00 AM MDT
Updated: 05/18/2010 02:15:58 AM MDT
The "smart" electric grid may be just a little too smart. Once a smart meter is attached to a home, it can gather a lot more data than just how much electricity a family uses. It can tell how many people live in the house, when they get up, when they go to sleep and when they aren't home. It can tell how many showers they take and loads of laundry they do. How often they use the microwave. How much television they watch and what kind of TV they watch it on.
Almost 200,000 smart meters are now being installed between Fort Collins and Pueblo, and across the country 52 million smart meters will be installed by 2015, according to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimate.
"This is technology that can pierce the blinds," said Elias Quinn, author of a smart grid privacy study for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. "Insufficient oversight could lead to an unprecedented invasion of consumer privacy," Quinn warned in his report to the PUC.
Law enforcement, government agencies and corporations, such as Microsoft and Google, already are eyeing all that data.
The transformation of the electric grid into a smart, sophisticated two-way energy and communication system is seen as a way to better manage power and improve efficiency.
The federal government has put up $3.4 billion to help speed smart-grid development.
The technology, however, poses new questions for consumer and privacy advocates, state regulators and federal officials.
How do you protect the information? Who should have access, and what happens if it falls into the wrong hands?
"Privacy and cybersecurity are among the greatest challenges in implementing the smart grid," said Nick Sinai, energy and environment director at the Federal Communications Commission.
Boulder-based Tendril Networks Inc. is a startup developing home energy management systems that use the smart grid and items such as smart thermostats and outlets. Tendril's concern is that if the utilities, and not the customers, control the data, it will "create a nannylike authority," said Cameron Brooks, the company's senior director for markets and policy.
"For us it is a pretty simple and fundamental approach: You give the consumer the power," he said.
Government agencies also are looking for the data. The city of Boulder wants data to see whether its energy-efficiency and carbon reduction-climate change programs are working. "We don't want individual data, but census track, neighborhood and housing class," said Karsa Mertz, a Boulder environmental manager.
One of the issues being examined by the PUC is whether government agencies should have access, in what form and who should pay for it.
One major user who will seek very specific data will be law enforcement agencies, said Joel Margolis, senior director of Neustar Inc.'s legal compliance unit. Neustar is a clearinghouse for telecommunications and Internet companies and handles compliance with law enforcement demands for its clients.
Smart meters could have the power to help locate marijuana grow lights, the klieg lights and camera of a child pornographer, and the location of a sweat shop or a brothel.
"There is a conflict here between two very valuable and well-intentioned policies ó privacy and the needs of law enforcement," said Margolis, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration attorney.
And then there is the risk of the information falling into the hands of criminals.