Dark Side of Smart Grid – Privacy and Exponential Data Growth

MSNBC has a post on the impact of power meters most don’t talk about.  The fact that power meters provide data on what you do in your house and all this data is going to mean petabytes of data.

What will talking power meters say about you?

Posted: Friday, October 9 2009 at 05:00 am CT by Bob Sullivan

Would you sign up for a discount with your power company in exchange for surrendering control of your thermostat? What if it means that, one day, your auto insurance company will know that you regularly arrive home on weekends at 2:15 a.m., just after the bars close?

Welcome to the complex world of the Smart Grid, which may very well pit environmental concerns against thorny privacy issues. If you think such debates are purely philosophical, you’re behind the times.

The gov’t is bringing up privacy concerns.

Pepco’s discount plan is among the first signs that the futuristic “Smart Grid” has already arrived. Up to three-fourths of the homes in the United States are expected to be placed on the “Smart Grid” in the next decade, collecting and storing data on the habits of their residents by the petabyte. And while there’s no reason to believe Pepco or other utilities will share the data with outside firms, some experts are already asking the question: Will saving the planet mean inviting Big Brother into the home? Or at least, as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke recently warned, will privacy concerns be the “Achilles’ heel” of the Smart Grid?

The dark side of what could be is discussed.

Dark side of a bright idea
But others see a darker side. Utility companies, by gathering hundreds of billions of data points about us, could reconstruct much of our daily lives -- when we wake up, when we go home, when we go on vacation, perhaps even when we draw a hot bath. They might sell this information to marketing companies -- perhaps a travel agency will send brochures right when the family vacation is about to arrive. Law enforcement officials might use this information against us ("Where were you last night? Home watching TV? That's not what the power company says … ”). Divorce lawyers could subpoena the data ("You say you're a good parent, but your children are forced to sleep in 61-degree rooms. For shame ..."). A credit bureau or insurance company could penalize you because your energy use patterns are similar to those of other troublesome consumers. Or criminals could spy the data, then plan home burglaries with fine-tuned accuracy.

How big is the data growth?

According to a recent discussion by experts at Smart Grid Security, here’s a quick explanation of the sudden explosion in data. In the United Kingdom, for example, 44 million homes had been creating 88 million data entries per year. Under a new two-way, smart system, new meters would create 32 billion data entries. Pacific Gas & Electric of California says it plans to collect 170 megabytes of data per smart meter, per year. And if about 100 million meters are installed as expected in the United States by 2019, 100 petabytes (a million gigabytes) of data could be generated during the next 10 years.

And you can expect storage vendors and enterprise consultants to support the mindset to leverage the data.

"Once a company monetizes data it collects, even if the amount is small, it is very reluctant to give it up," he said. Many companies he audits have robust privacy policies but end up using information in ways that frustrate or cost consumers, he said. "They talk a good game, but I'm sure (utility companies) will find ways to use the data, and not necessarily to benefit people but to harm people."

This complexity of privacy and data storage is part of why I have not focused much effort on the consumer smart meter market.  Applying the concepts of smart metering in data centers and commercial buildings has the potential to be adopted much quicker and supports energy efficiency and the green data center.