Privacy, wireless telecom and the power industry

Wireless woes will come home to roost

Phil Carson | Jul 15, 2012


Observers, including myself, occasionally point to the wireless telecom industry as a predictor of issues emerging in the power industry. That could mean mere technological innovation, but today I'm thinking about what I'd call "cultural issues."

"Cultural issues"? I'm talking about data privacy. The issue is cultural at its heart, though law and technology certainly play a role. Human beings' perceptions and feelings about what is right and what is wrong should be the guiding force behind how law and technology are applied. Thus, the link between wireless telecom and grid modernization in the case of data privacy.

The linkage has come into sharp focus with a recent report on the lack of privacy for wireless telecommunications. In an article in The New York Times last week, "More Demands on Cell Carriers in Surveillance," it was revealed that the nation's cell carriers received "a startling 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations." Further, a substantial proportion of these requests (the data is unclear) are made and fulfilled without warrants.

From the article: "While the cell companies did not break down the types of law enforcement agencies collecting the data, they made clear that the widened cell surveillance cut across all levels of government - from run-of-the-mill street crimes handled by local police departments to financial crimes and intelligence investigations at the state and federal levels."

Where's the smart grid parallel? You guessed it: smart meters. I've inveighed at length in this space about data privacy and security and warned that it is the Achilles heel of grid modernization. See three of my columns on the work of Ann Cavoukian, privacy commissioner for Ontario, "Smart Grid `Privacy by Design,'" "Data Privacy Issues" and "Data Privacy Issues, Part II," as well as her well-considered guidelines, Privacy by Design.

You don't have to be a charter member of the tin-foil hat crowd, barking about the United Nations' attempt to control your life, to grasp the fundamental importance of data privacy and the legal and technological means at hand to guarantee it. Yes, there are no guarantees in this world, but we have the means to employ effective safeguards and make violations the basis for societal and commercial ostracization.

I've approached the argument, over time, in an evolving manner and on a number of fronts. To sum up, if cost-effective safeguards are available (and they are, talk to Cavoukian), why not simply employ them and demonstrate how they work? Transparency is the antidote to paranoia.

If you speak to Cavoukian, she'll point out that all the power industry needs is a major breach of customers' personally identifiable information and what's left of the illusion of trust is poof, gone.

Hold the celebration, if you're wearing a tin-foil hat, or claiming health effects from electromagnetic radiation or just making noise because you see President Obama's face behind every bush. We are not in the same camp.

We need smart meters to provide many distribution system efficiencies, such as voltage optimization, and for the application of dynamic pricing and the automated means to take advantage of it.

All I'm saying is that with the example of wireless telecom and the ongoing, widespread violations of privacy that are involved, the power industry either addresses the data privacy issue head-on or it sentences itself to a war of attrition by those who oppose grid modernization for all the wrong reasons.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

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There are always legal exceptions

Phil, I agree that much greater privacy can be assured to avoid unauthorized viewing of my data, whether or not it's "Privacy by Design" or some other set of policies. However, while stating once again I am not a lawyer, my understanding is that the US government under the proper circumstances always has the legal right to view any private data about someone held by any individual or company in US territory. Any "Privacy by Design" policy must always allow this exception.

Now I am not against the government having this power, provided it is exercised legally (a surprising number of Supreme Court cases involve just what this legal authority is). My point here is simply that if we didn't have smart meters collecting this information, it wouldn't be available for the government to subpoena. I'm also not sure about how much of this private data is available to be subpoenaed in civil cases. The lawyers in both sides of a civil lawsuit have a pretty wide ability to subpoena information held by third parties about both parties in the lawsuit.

But again, I'm not laying awake nights worrying about the government peeking into my smart meter data.

        Milton Scritsmier

        Boulder, CO

What choice does the industry have?

I'm not sure what the industry can do to protect smart meter data. Once the electric industry provides the means to collect the data, the government has every right to issue a warrant to get it.

But beyond that, as you've said, we've seen the government apparently getting the data without issuing a warrant. Also, if you look at the history of the telcom industry, it was basically coerced by the government to install taps at all its major switches. Several years ago, the government passed a bill which offered the telcoms immunity from prosecution if they did so. While the taps weren't supposed to be collecting data all the time, it now appears the NSA is building a major data warehouse just south of Salt Lake City to collect everything that passes over the internet (see the April, 2012 cover story of Wired Magazine). Presumably they will make the data available to any federal agency with a legal right to see it. I'm not a lawyer so I don't know if this violates the Fourth Amendment if they never actually do anything with the data until it's needed in a criminal investigation.

However, I'm not particularly concerned about what the government may learn about my private habits from my smart meter use. But I live in a community (Boulder, CO) which has shown an interest in taxing residents more for electricity uses it deems less than socially responsible (who really needs A/C in the summer, after all?). Given the recent decision regarding taxes in the ACA Supreme Court decision, it seems they have the right to do so.

         Milton Scritsmier

         Boulder, CO

Privacy by Design


The general idea behind privacy by design or privacy enhancing technologies is to allow a company, such as a utility, to get the benefit of the collection of data without the pesky privacy risks typically associated with collecting massive amounts of data.

The best way to illustrate this is with an analogy to voting.  When you walk into a poll to vote, you're given a card upon which to register your votes.  Once your vote is casts, your vote is mixed in with the others and when it arrives at the supervisor of elections office, there is no way the supervisor can identify how you voted, yet he is still able to tally the votes and annouce a winner. 

Privacy enhancing technology uses advanced cryptographic techniques such as hashing, blinding, digital signatures and differential privacy to achieve the same results, obfuscating the ability to ascertain information about individuals while still be able to provide the service necessary. 

I'm not saying the example above is the end all solution. No, each solution must be tailored to the needs of the business and the privacy expectations of the customers. 

Total Information Awareness is real

Thanks for your comments, Milton. You'll recall that Admiral Poindexter spearheaded the Total Information Awareness program that remains in place. The collection of all electronic traffic has been ongoing for nearly a decade. Naturally, the (permanent) government -- i.e., the intelligence community -- will continue to build facilities to keep up with the resulting data.

I believe that Ann Cavoukian's Privacy by Design offers technological solutions to separate billing data from any personally identifiable information on granular behavior patterns pulled from a smart meter. So, there is a solution.

The data industry and the explosion of U.S. "intelligence gathering" agencies are spending too much money (mine and yours) to lead me to think that Privacy by Design will be implemented here. If I can't stop something, at least I need to be aware of what's taking place.

I'm not concerned about my electrical usage patterns being used against me, but I can see how they could be. That's bothersome. More bothersome: anyone is recording and analyzing it for their use, either commercial or investigative.

So, to reiterate the point of the column: there is a solution and if U.S. utilities don't embrace it and implement it, they reap what they sow. 

Regards, Phil Carson