My good friend Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s privacy commissioner, has co-authored a new report that highlights the potential privacy breaches that could result as we move toward a smart grid infrastructure, one that will certainly have dozens of applications layered on top with the capability of capturing information about how and when we use electricity. It might seem like benign information gathering, but Cavoukian says there is room for abuse and efforts must be made during early design of the smart grid to build in privacy protection. “Electric utilities and other providers may have access to information about what customers are using, when they are using it, and what devices are involved. An electricity usage profile could become a source of behavioural information on a granular level,” according to the report, which gives examples of types of information that could also reveal when a person is away from home and if an alarm system is on or off. The benefits such smart electricity services and applications can provide shouldn’t come at the expense of personal privacy. “Much in the same way that we do not expect the postman to look inside our windows when he is deliverying the mail or the cable person to monitor the TV shows we watch after he has completed the cable installation, so too do customers not expect there to be any surreptitious profiling of their in-home energy-related behavioural patterns.”
Are we being paranoid? Maybe — but then again, the privacy erosion that came rapidly with the Internet caught many consumers and businesses off guard. Certainly, it’s worth learning from past mistakes and thinking about these privacy issues before, rather than after, the infrastructure and supporting applications for the smart grid are rolled out. Cavoukian co-authored the paper with Jules Polonetsky and Christopher Wolf, who are co-chairs of the Washington-based Future of Privacy Forum. Polonetsky, it should be pointed out, is former chief privacy officer of AOL and, before that, online-advertising pioneer DoubleClick, which was acquired by Google in 2007 for $3.1 billion (U.S.).
Disclosure: I co-authored a consumer privacy book with Cavoukian back in 2002 called The Privacy Payoff.