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Does smart grid technology put our privacy at risk?

The IT Girl
|Written By Sarah Dale-Harris
Does smart grid technology put our privacy at risk?

We all knew it was coming, and I certainly braced myself for the worst because I do a lot of work from home, but I was still shocked by the significant increase in my hydro bill last month. Not to mention being totally nonplussed that I got a bunch of “power smarter” stickers after I had received that bill.

I thought I was being so efficient (apparently in attempting to manage work-life balance only) by doing my laundry during the day, while pecking away at my computer. Not so much. So rather than ruin a perfectly good weekend doing chores, I’m back to doing my laundry and running the dishwasher after 9 p.m., which is all well and good for me who mostly lives out of a microwave anyway, but can you imagine feeding your kids before 5 p.m. or after 9 p.m. to avoid “on-peak” billing?

My dad used to drive us crazy putting stickers on all of the light switches to remind us to turn off the lights and following us everywhere flicking off switches as he went — maybe he was on to something. Or I’m turning into him: I have “power smarter” stickers on the fridge and in the laundry room. . . .

So what about this “smart grid” technology? For those of you who, like me, have only recently entered the world of “smart technologies” to any degree, it all sounds a bit sci-fi doesn’t it? It is actually pretty amazing technology, though it does raise some significant concerns vis-a-vis privacy, which I’ll get to in a minute.

First off, let me try and take a layman’s look at what I understand smart grid technology to be. As I understand it, a smart grid uses two-way digital technology to deliver electricity from the supplier to the consumer. By communicating in this way, and using “smart meters,” the ideal outcome is that consumers save energy and reduce the cost of consumption, while increasing the reliability of electricity delivery. Not to mention that all of this will ideally also have a positive impact on the environment because of better-managed energy consumption.

Sounds pretty good to me, except for one not-so-small issue: privacy.

And it doesn’t just end with smart grids and smart meters. In development is everything from “sky meters” for road tolling to automatic parking meters, not to mention geo-location technologies and behavioural advertising tools that track consumer habits, so privacy is only going to become a bigger issue as these technologies continue to evolve.

All of these technologies involve data linkage to personally identifiable information, and basically create a library of personal information.

Take the smart meter technology for example. In the not-so-distant future, hydro companies will have detailed information about our habits simply by virtue of being able to track our energy consumption, including what time we go to bed and when we get up. As we replace our appliances for new “smart appliances,” they will be able to track our consumption of energy right down to each appliance we use.

This means that someday, my hydro supplier will know that I rarely use my stove. I’m not being at all facetious when I say that this means that if my hydro supplier is allowed to, it could conceivably monetize the data it has about me not using my stove by selling this information to an appliance company that would in turn use it to market the sale of microwave ovens to me.

I can tell you; this is not something I want to happen. I already get enough spam faxes and e-mails that are wholly unrelated to my personal habits (bill C-28, the proposed fighting Internet and wireless spam act, had better pass is all I can say), so the last thing I want is to have companies contacting me to tell me that since I don’t use my stove why don’t I think about buying prepared meals from “company x.” You think I’m kidding, but mark my words; it’s only a matter of time.

So how can we protect our right to privacy? Among other things, we need to be proactive about understanding what personal information is being collected and used for, how it will be disposed of, and about providing informed consent with respect to the use and disclosure of our personal information.

Companies are required to get our consent before disclosing our personal information to most third parties, particularly for purposes beyond what was initially contemplated by its collection, but privacy laws are complex and many companies don’t have the knowledge about how, or resources, to protect our information the way we think, and the way the law says, they ought to.

In my opinion, what constitutes consent is tricky and risky. And it is only going to become more so as technologies like smart meters evolve.

Enter the privacy commissioner of Ontario. As evidenced by her Privacy by Design project, and to give her her due, Ann Cavoukian is an amazingly enthusiastic proponent of advancing technology in tandem with ensuring the protection of our personal information. Working alongside industry members, she and her team have been working for some time now to get this project up and running. If the pilot project now underway is a success and embedding privacy into technology becomes the standard, I know I’ll sleep better at night knowing that something serious is being done to protect my personal information.

As I understand it, the challenge is to bring privacy into the fold of technological development in as efficient and painless a way as possible. Having seen her speak, I can tell you now that if she has anything to say about it, industry would be wise to get on board as quickly as possible because she is sure to fight hard to take this project the distance.

Sarah Dale-Harris is corporate counsel at Accenture Inc. and can be reached at sarah.dale-harris@accenture.com or at 416-641-3151. If you are interested in learning more about privacy issues relating to smart grid technologies, check out the Ontario privacy commission’s web site. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

  • Sarah
    See SCC decision of November 24, 2010 re individual right to privacy not extending to DRA/smart meter installation by Enmax on behalf of and for use by police in Alberta to track power consumption in order to obtain a search warrant that resulted in the conviction of Daniel Gomboc for growing and selling marijuana: http://scc.lexum.umontreal.ca/en/2010/2010scc55/2010scc55.html

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