From Smart Grid to Big Brother?

big brother 1984a apple smart grid photo

Image: Apple's famous 1984 Ad
She Usually Draws a Bath at 8:15...
Smarts grids and smart appliances are gaining a lot of mindshare these days. The main stated benefits are: A more efficient use of energy, and a higher capacity to handle intermittent renewable power sources (such as wind and solar). But there is another important issue that gets shoved under the rug: Privacy. These smart meters and appliances will be sending lots of data to power companies. What will happen to it is an important question that needs to be answered.A New Way to Gather Data on People
Bob Sullivan has an interesting piece on it. He writes:

Utility companies, by gathering hundreds of billions of data points about us, could reconstruct much of our daily lives -- when we wake up, when we go home, when we go on vacation, perhaps even when we draw a hot bath. They might sell this information to marketing companies -- perhaps a travel agency will send brochures right when the family vacation is about to arrive. Law enforcement officials might use this information against us ("Where were you last night? Home watching TV? That's not what the power company says ... "). Divorce lawyers could subpoena the data ("You say you're a good parent, but your children are forced to sleep in 61-degree rooms. For shame ..."). A credit bureau or insurance company could penalize you because your energy use patterns are similar to those of other troublesome consumers. Or criminals could spy the data, then plan home burglaries with fine-tuned accuracy. [...]

Privacy expert Alessandro Acquisti, who studies the intersection of economics and privacy at Carnegie Mellon University, said privacy issues routinely arise even when companies that collect data do so with all good intention. Many times, data that collected is harmless in isolation, but becomes troublesome when combined with other data, or examined by a third party for patterns.

The privacy risks - and opportunities for abuse, both from governments and from malicious individuals - are not unique to smart grids of course. It's par for the course with highly networked technologies like the internet.

The difference is that you can still mostly decide what you put online or on your computer. But you have a higher expectation of privacy inside your home, and might not realize that the data gathered about your energy usage could be used to reconstruct part of your life (potentially in erroneous ways).

What do do?
One way to limit the damage would be to create mandatory standards about data anonymization and retention that would give power companies enough information to run their networks, but nothing more. An independent "smart grid privacy" ombudsman could verify that these standards are followed and make sure that the power grid stays a tool to deliver power to people, not to monitor their lives without consent.

See also: "Tres Amigas" Superstation Could Connect the 3 US Electrical Grids
More Smart Grid & Appliances
These Smart Clothes Dryers Could Reduce Electricity Demand by the Equivalent of 6 Coal Power Plants
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