Mar 112010
 
 March 11, 2010  Surveillance

Privacy advocates are warning that “smart meters” intended to precisely measure and control home
electrical consumption could erode the privacy of daily life unless regulators limit data collection and
disclosure. In a joint filing this week, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to adopt rules to protect the privacy and security of consumers’ energy-usage information. The Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law drafted the comments for CDT.

Smart meters being installed now in California will collect 750 to 3,000 data points a month per household. This detailed energy usage data can indicate whether someone is at home or out, entertaining guests, or using particular appliances. Marketers and others may seek such data. To head off misuse of the information, CDT and EFF urged the California PUC to adopt comprehensive privacy standards for the collection, retention, use and disclosure of consumers’ household energy data.

“In the absence of clear rules, this potentially beneficial smart grid technology could mean yet another intrusion on private life,” said Jim Dempsey, San Francisco-based Vice President of CDT. “The PUC should act now, before our privacy is eroded.”

CDT and EFF argue that utilities collecting detailed information about energy use in the home must specify in
advance how they are going to use that data and must confine their collection to legitimate purposes. Disclosure to marketers or government agencies should be restricted. In addition, utility companies should ensure that consumers have access to their own data, so they can take advantage of innovative energy efficiency services.

“The Smart Grid offers great promise for fighting climate change and improving energy policy, but it can also amass vast amounts of data that reveals intimate details of consumers’ lives,” said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Samuelson Clinic. “Building privacy protections into the Grid from the beginning protects both the environment and consumers from harm.”

The California PUC is conducting a rulemaking proceeding to consider setting policies, standards, and protocols to guide the development of the smart grid system. The stimulus law signed by President Obama in February 2009 included $4.5 billion to modernize the electric grid. The electric utilities’ ongoing smart meter projects are one aspect of this initiative. However, increases in efficiency and economy promised by the Smart Grid need to be measured against the potential privacy risks.

“The data points gathered by advanced energy metering projects will allow the reconstruction of your life: when you wake up, when get home, when you go on vacation. It’s not hard to imagine a divorce lawyer subpoenaing this information, or an insurance company interpreting the data in a way that allows it to penalize customers, or criminals intercepting the information to plan a burglary,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien. “We must have meaningful rules to protect this extremely sensitive information.”

For the full comments to the California PUC:
http://www.eff.org/files/CDTEFFJointComment030910.pdf

For more on California’s smart grid initiative:
http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/PUC/energy/smartgrid.htm

For this release:
http://www.eff.org/press/archives/2010/03/09

Lee Tien also blogs about this issue on EFF’s site, here.

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