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Energy Data Privacy Risks: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Christine Hertzog's picture
Principal Technical Leader, Cyber Security Strategic Initiative Electric Power Research Institute

Christine Hertzog is a Principal Technical Leader focused on OT Cyber Security research at EPRI.  She conducts research on new technologies suitable for OT environments and informs industry...

  • Member since 2010
  • 286 items added with 151,823 views
  • Jan 27, 2015

Energy Data Privacy Policy

Wednesday is Data Privacy Day in the USA, and it should receive heightened awareness after the recent Sony Pictures cyberattack. While media attention focused on cybersecurity weaknesses, privacy is the natural consequence of good cybersecurity. Security – cyber and physical – is a strategy that ensures a privacy outcome.

Unfortunately, determined cyberattackers or the deliberate or careless actions of current or former employees can defeat the best cybersecurity and physical security systems. Mandatory privacy policies and protections minimize the risks that sensitive data will be exposed – whatever that data might be. Sensitive data such as social security numbers, bank account information, and personal health records are managed to protect privacy. Utilities already manage sensitive data too, but need to prepare for significant increases in privacy risks.

Sensors are gathering more and/or new types of data. Inexpensive data transmission and storage makes it possible to handle new volumes, varieties, and velocities of data. Smart Grid technologies can deliver new granularity in time-stamped data about consumer use of electricity, gas or water. More M2M technologies can generate location-based data that accurately maps activity over the course of a day.

All these converging technologies increase data privacy risks, and make the publication of Data Privacy for the Smart Grid* very timely. It’s a key reason I helped write it. The Smart Grid delivers a myriad of benefits to utilities and consumers, but it also creates new risks and new concerns about data privacy. Energy usage data is invaluable to help intelligently manage energy and reduce utility operational costs and consumer costs. Privacy risks emerge in questions of how that energy usage data is used, shared, stored and otherwise accessed.

Utilities have prominent roles in the collection of energy usage data, but they may not be the only entities gathering, receiving, storing, or using that data. In the future it is very likely that businesses other than utilities may manage generation assets or water conservation equipment, sell electricity, or collect energy usage data directly from consumers. The variety of potential players coupled with new services and technologies can easily confuse everyone with blurry responsibilities for privacy protection and more exposure risks. Will consumers always know the “chain of data custody” for their energy usage data? The answer is no, and that has serious policy, process, and training implications for utility executives and vendors of solutions capable of gathering, transmitting, and using this data.

This is definitely a situation where what you don’t know about privacy risks can hurt you – in the forms of criminal or civil litigation and financial penalties, bad publicity, lost goodwill, and reputation damage. What steps should utilities and vendors take to protect the privacy of their customers’ energy usage data and the fallouts of failure? The answers are the focus of next week’s article.

*Published by Taylor and Francis Group. Co authors: Christine Hertzog and Rebecca Herold. ISBN: 978-1-46-657337-6. Available for pre-sale now.

Photo Credit: Energy Data and Privacy Concerns/shutterstock

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jan 28, 2015

The privacy and security issues of smart meters in people’s homes are real and won’t go away. Where consumers are faced with known privacy and security risks which can seriously affect their internet access due to virusses and cyberattacks, smart meters will now add to this the risk of losing access to electricity altogether.

Meanwhile, the benefits of smart-metering for consumers are somewhere between tiny and zero.

Data gathered from substations provide more than enough information about consumer electricity usage patterns. There is no need to obtain more detailed information. It would not help improve grid reliability and would not reduce costs. This was confirmed to me by a professional working for one of our national electricity utilities.

Moreover, research has shown that households do not typically reduce energy use when confronted with the realtime cost using smart meter technology. They only (somewhat) reduce their consumption when confronted with the damage caused by electricity generation. In either case, the effect is short lived. After a few weeks or months, all test subjects’ electricity use returned to the pre-test levels.

Finally, peak consumer electricity demand is there for a reason. The reason is that people sometimes need or want to use electricity at the same time, such as when they cook their food, cool/heat their homes, or do the vacuuming/ironing. That is not a bad thing. It is just people trying to live their lives in comfort and do their chores at THEIR discretion. Attempting to force people to change their ways and live according to the whims of the weather in return for negligeable pollution or cost benefit is pointless and irritating. It is a costly distraction.


Christine Hertzog's picture
Thank Christine for the Post!
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