Saturday, January 28 is International Data Privacy Day.  It’s a great opportunity to think about new data created as a result of the modernization of our electrical grid into the Smart Grid, and what this means for our privacy.  Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is credited with the quote:  “Knowledge is power.”  Agreed.  Understanding what this data means to you and to others (individuals and organizations) is powerful knowledge that will aid your privacy decisions.

Are you ready to test your knowledge about electricity data and the privacy of that data?  And beyond Smart Grid discussions, as more devices are communications-enabled, the Internet of Things will produce enormous amounts of new data that can profoundly impact our privacy.  Here are a few questions:

  1. Smart meters provide electricity data that lets utilities spy on consumers.  T/F
  2. My electricity data doesn’t have value to anyone but me.  T/F
  3. A kilowatthour (kWh) can’t tell my utility exactly what appliances have been using electricity.  T/F
  4. Utilities need to do more to ensure that my electricity data is protected.  T/F
  5. The new Green Button initiative will
    1. Result in my electricity data being sold to the highest bidder
    2. Give me control over my electricity data and who may view or use it
    3. Automatically post my electricity data to my Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn pages.

Here are the answers.

  1. False.  While smart meters can communicate the amount of electricity that you are consuming in your home, special hardware and software that you install within your home is needed to disaggregate the stream of electrons flowing into your home and break it down to what flows to individual components.  A smart meter can offer a more time-granular view of electricity consumption, and that data could allow you to infer that spikes or declines in use correspond to operation of specific equipment  – particularly the biggest guzzlers like clothes dryers, pool pumps, and heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC ) systems.   There are companies that take smart meter data and create suggestions to help you reduce electricity use, but those suggestions are based on inference and analytics comparing your usage against a peer group with similar variables for location, size of home, number of occupants, etc.
  2. False.  Your electricity consumption data has enormous potential value to you and to others.  For instance, think about how your internet search data has value to advertisers.  Similarly, analysis of your electricity data could reveal information that would be valuable to businesses that want to sell products or services to you.  If you choose to share your data with a company in exchange for any value-added services, you’ll want to obtain a detailed description of exactly how they use that data, how they protect that data from unauthorized access, and if they want the ability to sell that data (anonymized or not) to others.
  3. True.  A kilowatthour is a unit of measurement that is one kilowatt of power expended in one hour.  It can’t tell you or your utility what that kilowatt was used for, anymore than the miles per gallon (mpg) metric can tell you or your friendly state trooper how fast you’ve been driving your car or where you’ve been driving it.  You could make inferences about the lavishness of your lifestyle by a monthly kWh consumption compared to a peer group.  But a kWh number won’t tell you or your utility how much electricity was spent chilling your 3000 bottle wine collection.  You can get that information if you install special devices, but the utility will never know.
  4. True.  Smart meters do collect more electricity consumption data than dumb meters.  That data can help us recognize the true total cost of operation (TCO) for our equipment and our lifestyles.  Utilities must re-examine their existing policies and practices to ensure that they can securely communicate and store data needed to continue the safe, reliable, and cost-effective delivery of electricity.  We already have too many horror stories about how insurance companies and retailers compromise personal, medical, and financial information.  We don’t want to see utilities or third party service providers making similar errors with our electricity data.  See this blog for more information about ongoing activities to help utilities incorporate the policies and best practices to protect consumers’ electricity data.
  5. The correct answer is b.  The recently-launched Green Button initiative models the successful Blue Button initiative that makes it very easy for consumers to “have timely access to their own electricity data in consumer-friendly and computer-friendly formats.”   You own your electricity data, and you can choose who may have access to it (aside from the utility that has legitimate needs for “revenue-grade” data to accurately bill your electricity use.)  However, and this is a big caveat, as consumers we need to know how the companies with whom we share the data will use it  and protect it from unauthorized access or use.  Just as we have expectations that retailers secure our credit card information, we should have similar expectations of any companies that we allow to access our electricity data.