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Smart grid could lead to stupid privacy decisions: privacy commissioner

A smart electricity grid could lead to some stupid privacy decisions, according to a report issued by the Information & Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada.

As electricity companies collect more information about the energy usage of their customers, they could put the privacy of these customers at risk, warns privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian. Her white paper, Smart Privacy for the Smart Grid: Embedding Privacy in the Design of Electricity Conservation, outlines some concepts that can address the privacy concerns raised by the smart grid.

The smart grid brings many benefits, but privacy protection must be built into the design of this new technology before an explosion of personal data erupts, she cautions. The infrastructure that will support the future smart grid will be capable of informing consumers of their hourly and real-time energy use, but the privacy implications are potentially very serious.

"The overarching privacy concern associated with smart grid technology is its ability to greatly increase the amount of information that is currently available relating to the activities of individuals within their homes, their habits and behaviours," she warns. Intimate details of the habits of power customers, combined with security issues such as whether they have an alarm system engaged, could be discerned from the data that will be automatically fed by appliances to the companies which provide power.

"The smart grid will provide benefits for the economy and the environment and could mean savings for individual consumers, but the success of the grid will be completely dependent on consumers trusting that their data is being handled responsibly,” adds Jules Polonetsky of the Washington-based Future of Privacy Forum and co-author of the report. “If companies do not get privacy right from the start, billions will have been spent in vain."

"The information collected on a smart grid will form a library of personal information, the mishandling of which could be highly invasive of consumer privacy," explains co-author Christopher Wolf, also of the Future of Privacy Forum. "There will be major concerns if consumer-focussed principles of transparency and control are not treated as essential design principles, from beginning to end."

Cavoukian says the ‘SmartPrivacy’ concept can be used to address the privacy concerns raised by the smart grid, and represents a broad arsenal of protections which cover everything to ensure that all personal information held by an organisation is appropriately managed. These include privacy laws, regulation and independent oversight, accountability and transparency, audit and assessment; market forces, education and awareness, data security, and fair information practices.

"While each of these elements is important, Privacy by Design where privacy is built in from the outset as the default function, is the key," says Cavoukian. "Once energy consumption information flows outside of the home, consumers may have questions such as: Who will have access to this intimate data, and for what purposes? Will I be notified? What are the obligations of companies making smart appliances and smart grid systems to build in privacy? How will I be able to control the details of my daily life in the future?"

Organisations involved with the smart grid are responsible for processing of customers' personal information, and must be able to respond to these questions, she explains. "The best response is to ensure that privacy is embedded into the design of the smart grid, from start to finish, end to end."

As the smart grid is in early stages of development, now is the perfect time to build ‘SmartPrivacy’ into the smart grid, adds Cavoukian. "Consumer control of electricity consumption and consumer control of their personal information must go hand-in-hand.”

“Doing so will ensure that consumer confidence and trust is gained, and that participation in the smart grid contributes to the vision of creating a more efficient and environmentally-friendly electrical grid, as well as one that is protective of privacy,” she adds. “This will result in a positive sum outcome, where both environmental efficiency and privacy may co-exist.”

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