Privacy Issues Raised By Smart Grid Technology

07/28/11 5:04PM By John Dillon
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(Host) Technology called the smart grid holds great promise for utilities and their customers to better manage electricity use. But now Vermont utility regulators are taking a look at the privacy issues that the technology raises.

The concern is how to protect privacy as utilities gather more detailed information on how and when a customer uses electricity.

VPR's John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Sophisticated electric meters will soon allow people to see how much electricity they use at certain times of day, and even from what appliances. So if power was cheaper in the early morning, for example, you could pay less by using your electric dryer before you go to work.

But the same data could also be valuable to marketing companies seeking to sell you a more efficient dryer. And police may want to know if you're really running your dryer for five hours a day - or if those kilowatts are actually being used to power an indoor marijuana growing operation.

The Public Service Board has included privacy issues in its review of Vermont's smart grid build out. James Porter is director of telecommunications for the Public Service Department, the state agency that represents consumers.

(Porter) "And as there's more data, then there are concerns as to how that data will be used, how it will be stored, will it be secure."

(Dillon) The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wants the data protected. Allen Gilbert is the group's executive director. Gilbert says law enforcement has been able to obtain customer phone data without a warrant, and he doesn't want the same thing to happen with electricity information.

(Gilbert) "If police want to get it, they should first get a warrant to show that obtaining the data is justified and then the utility can turn it over. But before that we think the consumer should be in control of it."

(Dillon) Utilities say they're taking privacy issues very seriously. The Vermont companies have signed on to a set of principles for the smart grid and the first one deals with says consumer data. Steve Costello is spokesman for Central Vermont Public Service Corporation.

(Costello) "We will treat the information that is gathered like its our own information, our own private information. It won't be shared with any third parties without the customer's permission. And it will be used only to help improve the management of the system and the way the grid works."

(Dillon) The Vermont Electric Cooperative in Johnson was the first utility in Vermont to offer "smart" electric meters - devices that allow customers to track their electric use by the hour.

CEO David Hallquist says a big concern is cyber-security - how to prevent customer information from falling into the wrong hands.

(Hallquist) "The potential we have now out there with all these ports out there all these smart meters, all this stuff in our substations is we have we have a lot more places where people can access data from places we never imagined before. Now of course we need to pay attention to all our assets in the field, and how people handle information as well as our IT systems."

(Dillon) Vermont has received nearly $70 million from the federal government to deploy smart grid technology. Those funds are being matched by the state's utilities.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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