Energy consultant Craig Miller, who spends much of his time working to make the smart grid a reality, got a jolt when he mentioned his work to a new acquaintance. The man, who happened to be a lineman at a Pennsylvania utility, responded earnestly: “Smart meters are a plot by Obama to spy on us.”
The encounter was a disheartening sign of the challenge ahead for proponents of the smart grid, who say that the technology can help the industry meet power demand, fix problems faster, and help consumers lower their electricity bills. Advocates of such a 21st-century grid are learning that they need to take privacy concerns seriously. Though smart meters are not, in fact, a domestic espionage scheme, they do raise questions: In a world where households start talking with the power grid, what exactly will be revealed? And who will be listening? (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Electricity.”)
The term “smart grid” encompasses an array of technologies that can be implemented at various points along the line of transmission from power plant to electricity user, but for many consumers, it is symbolized by one thing: the smart meter. A majority of U.S. states have begun deploying the wireless meters, which can send electricity usage information from a household back to the utility remotely at frequent intervals. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than 36 million smart meters were installed across the nation as of August 2012, covering about a quarter of all electrical customers. In the European Union, only 10 percent of households have smart meters but they are being deployed rapidly to meet an EU mandate that the technology reach 80 percent of households by 2020.
Because smart meters can provide real-time readings of household energy use instead of the familiar monthly figures most customers now see in their electric bills, the devices offer a new opportunity for consumers to learn more about their own power use and save money. But the ability to track a household’s energy use multiple times a day also presents some unsettling possibilities. In theory, the information collected by smart meters could reveal how many people live in a home, their daily routines, changes in those routines, what types of electronic equipment are in the home, and other details. “It’s not hard to imagine a divorce lawyer subpoenaing this information, an insurance company interpreting the data in a way that allows it to penalize customers, or criminals intercepting the information to plan a burglary,” the private nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a blog post about smart meters. (Related: “Pictures: The Energy Drain of Recreational Drugs”)
Colleges share many things on Twitter, but one topic can be risky to broach: the reading habits of library patrons.
Harvard librarians learned that lesson when they set up Twitter feeds broadcasting titles of books being checked out from campus libraries. It seemed harmless enough—a typical tweet read, “Reconstructing American Law by Bruce A. Ackerman,” with a link to the book’s library catalog entry—but the social-media experiment turned out to be more provocative than library staffers imagined.
Harvard suspended the practice after privacy concerns were raised. Even though the Twitter stream randomized checkout times and did not disclose patrons’ identities, the worry was that someone might somehow use other details to identify the borrowers.
Enlarge ImageBrian Smith for The ChronicleReaders in Harvard U.’s Widener Library can return books to the “Awesome Box,” creating a data trail about what they consider great. “Awesomed” selections are then publicized via Twitter.
The episode points to an emerging tension as libraries embrace digital services. Historically, libraries have been staunch defenders of patrons’ privacy. Yet to embrace many aspects of the modern Internet, which has grown more social and personalized, libraries will need to “tap into and encourage increased flows of personal information from their patrons,” says the privacy-and-social-media scholar Michael Zimmer.
Millions of people now share what they’re reading through social-networking sites like Facebook, or smaller services including Goodreads and LibraryThing. They’re accustomed to the personalized recommendations that Amazon provides by tracking customers’ buying and browsing habits.