Privacy Experts Raise Concerns over Smart-Grid Technology

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Privacy experts are concerned about a myriad of security risks associated with the latest "Smart Meter" technology -devices that when installed would measure the level of personal power usage in homes and businesses.

Privacy expert and Executive Director of ACCESS, Jim Malmberg, offers his insight on this issue to help raise awareness and urge readers to provide their comments on the government's proposed plan by February 19th.

Why does the Government need to know if your oven is on?
By Guest Blogger:
Jim Malmberg

Given the myriad of problems facing the United States right now, you can be forgiven for not worrying about what information your water heater is sending to the US government. The fact of the matter is, right now, it is not sending the government any information. But the Obama administration wants to change that. In fact, it wants to know just about everything you are doing with major appliances in your home on a real time basis; an announcement which it made in the Federal Register. More importantly, it wants to control how you use those appliances. If you think about it, the prospect of this is downright frightening and it would mean the end of privacy in your home as you know it.If you think about it, the prospect of this is downright frightening and it would mean the end of privacy in your home as you know it.

The Federal Register isn't exactly the publication that most people read every morning. That fact may be exactly what the Obama administration is counting on. It is however the publication in which new government proposals, rules and regulations must be published prior to the time they can be put into effect.

In a recent issue, the Science and Technology Policy Office which reports to the President published a request for public comments that is quite revealing. The request concerns "Consumer Interface With the Smart Grid", which is what the administration is calling the new electric grid for United States.

In a nut shell, the publication lays out the goals of the administration. Under the guise of reducing energy usage, the government wants manufacturers to start placing communications technology into household appliances. They then want those appliances to communicate with utility providers and consumers. While the announcement does state that the information gathered could be used to tell consumers what each appliance in their home was costing them in terms of electric and gas usage, it also goes on to lay out a rather ominous vision of how collected data could be used. It specifically mentions that appliances could be "manufactured with the ability to respond to electric grid emergencies and demand response signals." In other words, if the government thinks you're using too much power to run your air conditioning, or watching TV, they will be able to turn those devices off without impacting other devices in your home.

The announcement didn't appear to suggest any restriction on the amount or type of data that devices could collect either. So, a smart grid enabled TV might also collect data on what you are watching. And if the government can simply turn off your TV, then what is to prevent them from doing so if they don't like the shows you are watching?

The wording in the announcement is also contradictory. It says that participation by consumers would be voluntary but then goes on to point out that since many consumers are not technically adept in communications, appliances will need to be made so that they can simply be plugged in and begin communication with the grid on their own. At the very least, they are counting on most people not having the ability to reconfigure their appliances and keep their data private.

Another real concern is that the request specifically states that appliances may be setup to communicate via the internet. This raises a variety of privacy issues and increases the possibility of data being hacked. This could allow someone interested in stealing electronic devices to determine exactly what kind of devices are in your home without ever setting foot in it. It could also be used by private detectives in divorce proceedings or by the police investigators; quite possibly without the need for a search warrant.

The idea of building a smart electric grid which allows consumers to monitor their energy usage and help them control spending is very attractive. But the idea of building an intrusive communications network that allows the government and utility companies to monitor power usage, individual consumer habits and shut down individual devices is Orwellian.

If you think that all of this is a little paranoid, then consider this. One of the specific questions asked in the government's request is "Who owns the home energy usage data? Should individual consumers and their authorized third-party service providers have the right to access energy usage data directly from the meter?" Very simply, this means that serious consideration is being given to allow third parties - including the government - to use this data in any way they see fit.

ACCESS is urging consumers to provide their comments on the government's plan. According to the Federal Register, comments can be given by going to and must be received by February 19th, 2010.

Comments can be sent to

Jim Malmberg
Executive Director, ACCESS

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White House Decides to Ask Question Again When it Gets Answers it Doesn't Like

Two weeks ago today, I wrote this editorial entitled Why Does The Government Need To Know If Your Oven Is On?

The piece was about the federal government's plan for incorporating smart-grid technology in all home appliances (as described in the Federal Register on February 9th).

The technology has the potential to be highly intrusive and end privacy in your home as you know it today. Since the notification published in the Federal Register asked for comments, I suggested that readers respond by telling the government that any data collected should belong to them and that use by third parties should not be allowed. I can only assume that the government didn't like the comments it was receiving since the White House published a new Federal Register notice on February 19th and any comments submitted prior to today are nowhere to be found. Is this just a mistake or is it sleazy government in action?

When the original Federal Register notice was published regarding the incorporation of smart grid technology in home appliances, I immediately tried to comment. The first surprise that I ran into was that the website for comments was not actually online. No worries though. Comments could also be submitted by e-mail. Eventually, those comments should have been posted on a working government website; something that doesn’t appear to have happened yet.

Instead, last Thursday the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) - a group that reports to the President and whose website is actually a part of the White House website - published a new Federal Register notice; once again requesting comments from the public. While the website address for these has changed, the e-mail address has not.

The government is trying to position smart grid technology with the public as an easy way to monitor energy usage and control energy bills. While that may sound attractive, the questions that they are asking in the Federal Register are disturbing and tell a different tale. Among these is "Who owns the home energy usage data?" That means that the government is actually contemplating scenarios in which you may not have any control over the amount and type of data being collected about your utility usage or how it is used.

Both the original and the second notice state that the government wants manufacturers to make appliances that are "manufactured with the ability to respond to electric grid emergencies and demand response signals". In short, the government wants to have the ability, or to give your utility company the ability to shut off certain appliances while leaving others unaffected. Just imagine this technology in association with televisions. It may sound a little paranoid but if the government doesn't like what you are watching on TV, they could have the ability to shut it off or at the very least monitor you.

If you think that sounds far fetched, just consider the case involving students who were issued laptops -and as it turns out, the school had he ability to turn those cameras on, and they have used that ability to spy on students in the privacy of their own homes. This has resulted in a federal judge issuing an order to the school district that prohibits spying on students through their computers. In many ways, what happened in Pennsylvania is very similar to what the government wants from the smart grid.

ACCESS is urging readers to submit comments to the OSTP. It is time to tell the government that your personal data belongs to you alone and that you require total control over how your information is used. That includes how much electricity, water and gas you consume and what appliances are actually installed in your home. All comments must be received by no later than March 12th. You can submit comments to the OSTP online forum by clicking here or by navigating to and looking for the link on the right side of the page that announces the launch of the OSTP and NIST forum. Alternatively, you can submit comments by e-mail by sending messages to
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