NAPERVILLE, IL — The widespread deployment of smart meters has resulted in serious concerns that such devices unreasonably invade the privacy of consumers. Some of the main privacy concerns that have been reported in the literature are summarized below.
Privacy Concerns Related to Smart Meter
As a general rule, the ability to discern occupancy and specific activities from smart meters depends on the time resolution of the energy consumption data collected. Daily readings would generally enable one to determine dwelling occupancy over time. As the data collection intervals are further reduced, a load profile is revealed that allows determination of general movement and activities within a dwelling on an hour by hour basis. With further increased granularity of the data, usage of individual appliances within a dwelling can be identified. For example, as indicated on page 14 of NIST Document NISTIR 7628, “Guidelines for Smart Grid Cyber Security: Vol. 2, Privacy and the Smart Grid,” research shows that analyzing 15-minute interval household energy consumption data can by itself pinpoint the use of most major home appliances.
Since smart meters represent a threat to the personal privacy of consumers, it is essential that the amount of data collected by smart meters be limited to the bare minimum necessary to accomplish utility objectives.
As outlined on page 20 of NIST Document NISTIR 7628, Vol.2 (full title mentioned above):
“In the current operation of the electric utilities, data taken from traditional meters consists of basic data usage readings required to create bills. Under the Smart Grid implementation, smart meters will be able to collect other types of data. … Some of this additional data may constitute personal information or may be used to determine personal activities. Because of the associated privacy risks, only the minimum amount of data necessary for services, provisioning, and billing should be collected.” [emphasis added]
“Before collecting any new confidential information from Customers or implementing any programs or systems that automatically collect Confidential Information, the Utility shall determine what Confidential Information is reasonably necessary [emphasis added] to effectively implement Smart Grid Technology.”
Balancing ActBased upon the above information it is evident that a utility’s goal to enhance its electrical grid operations must be balanced with the privacy interests of the consumer. This “balancing” would require that a privacy impact assessment be performed where a utility would consciously, thoughtfully, and methodically ensure that the data collection capabilities of a smart meter did not unreasonably infringe on the privacy expectations of the consumer. Was such a privacy impact assessment performed for the City of Naperville’s implementation of its smart grid initiative? Evidently not based upon the paragraphs that follow.
As documented in the Federal lawsuit of Naperville Smart Meter Awareness vs. City of Naperville, Document # 51-2 of Case # 11-CV-09299, please review the following verbal exchange regarding smart meter data collection frequencies:
COURT: “Is there a reason why the 15-minute unit time was chosen as opposed to daily or — … weekly?”
CITY: “Yes. … we chose the 15-minute interval because of our overall program and our — our need to be able to determine our energy usage on a more accurate basis for purposes of buying our power out in the marketplace. And so that when we buy our power, we buy it more accurately.”
COURT: “Okay. With regard to — let’s put it this way: Is there magic as to 15 minutes as opposed to an hour, as opposed to 30 minutes, as opposed to five minutes?”
CITY: “Your Honor, we chose 15 minutes as – it was a balance between the meters’ memory capacity, cost of the meters, and the resolution that we would have liked to obtain information where we could lower demand and provide cost savings.” [emphasis added]
COURT: “In other words, you could have bought meters that sent off information every five minutes, but they would have been more expensive?”
CITY: “That’s correct, your Honor. More expensive, or we could retain less than the amount of information that we needed inside the meter.”
As you can see from the Court proceedings, there is no indication that the privacy interests of the individual were even remotely considered in determining the data collection capabilities of the smart meter. In fact, if it were not for cost considerations, there is an implication that the City may have purchased meters configured to collect electrical usage data even more frequently than the current 15-minute interval … resulting in even greater privacy invasions for consumers.
So rather than balancing the privacy interests of consumers with the City’s goal to enhance its electrical grid operations, the City formally stated in a Court of law that the current 15-minute smart meter data collection interval was determined by balancing such factors as memory capacity and cost. There was no mention of customer privacy as a consideration. As such, the City has failed to follow the basic common sense guidelines given at the beginning of this article in deciding what private and/or confidential data may reasonably be collected from the customer without consent.
Since the City of Naperville and its municipally owned utility have failed to properly consider the privacy interests of its customers, there exists yet another compelling reason why the City should promptly provide analog electrical usage meters to all customers requesting them at no additional cost to the consumer.