Monday, March 15, 2010

Post # 5 - Who Owns Your Data (continued)?

As discussed in prior posts, an important smart grid issue is ownership of consumer data “embedded” in the new generation of smart meters. The traditional electric meters currently attached to our homes or businesses typically are read no more than once a month by the local electric company. Moreover, these meters only show gross electric usage since the last reading. But the new smart meters have the potential to exponentially expand the data points collected, the speed of collection, and the frequency of collection. And that is the whole point. By giving both the electric company and the customer real-time information about the customer’s electric usage, the electric company can better plan energy delivery and the customer can better focus on his or her real-time energy expenditures.

But there is also a downside -- or, perhaps more correctly, a potential (but serious) concern. As discussed in Post # 4, smart meters effectively will be mining data from the electric customer, presenting obvious privacy and data ownership issues.

In that regard, in a recent filing with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) presented their concerns and recommended new rules on the collection and use of smart grid data. (This filing can be found here).

The CDT and EFF point out that new digital meters could collect data 750 to 3,000 times a month. Such detailed and granulated metering, the CDT and EFF fear, will make it possible to put together a picture of household life: when the people who live there get up, when they get home, what appliances they use most and when they go on vacation. Thus, the CDT and the EFF propose the adoption of “Fair Information Practice Principles” that call for informing consumers about what data is collected and how it is used and giving them control over who can see their data -- even if it is stripped of personally identifying information like names and addresses. The two groups would also limit what data can be collected and for what purposes and make utilities accountable for how third parties use customer data.

The CDT/ETF proposal is extremely rigorous, and it will be interesting to see the response by industry groups; state agencies, such as the CPUC, which regulate retail electric sales; and federal agencies like the FERC and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The smart grid debate has tended to focus on technical and cost issues. But as the smart grid is actually rolled out, and especially as smart meters appear destined to be the principal point of contact between the smart grid and retail customers, data ownership and control increasingly will be part of the debate.

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