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News Link • Surveillance

Tracking Electric Use Could Allow Utilities to Track You, Too

• NY Times

Smart electric grids are championed by the federal government, conservation groups and industry as good for the economy and the environment. The digital meters in homes enable measurement and two-way communication with utilities so consumers can trim electricity use.

But some technology policy organizations worry that smart meters pose a potential threat to privacy and could be exploited by online marketers, government agencies, criminals and others.

In a filing with the California Public Utilities Commission last week, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation presented their concerns and recommended new rules on the collection and use of smart grid data.

Traditional electromechanical meters — attached to the side of a house — are typically read once a month or less. New digital meters will collect data 750 to 3,000 times a month. Such fine-grained metering, privacy experts say, 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.

The policy groups argued for 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 principles would also limit what data can be collected and for what purposes and make utilities accountable for how third parties use customer data.

That approach to privacy protection would be a tougher standard than the norm in the online world, in which Web sites are supposed to clearly inform consumers about data-handling practices and give them choices to limit how their data is used.

The recommended principles, the filing states, “go beyond the currently dominant — and discredited — model of ‘notice and choice.’”

Energy-thrifty California is at the forefront of adopting smart grid technology, as the $4.5 billion in the federal economic stimulus package earmarked for modernizing the electricity grid begins to be spent in earnest.

“This technology is very promising, but we should try to manage privacy early, before there is a problem,” said Jennifer Urban, co-director of the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley. Her organization prepared the filing on behalf of the technology-and-privacy groups.


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