December 2009

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Privacy, the Essential Service for Smart Buildings

Privacy issues and privacy concerns became front and center at the Grid-Interop and the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP).

Toby ConsidineToby Considine
Systems Specialist,
Facility Services, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
The New Daedalus

Contributing Editor

Energy Privacy was the hottest topic of Grid-Interop in Denver. Perhaps it was the Google Energy demos, which show people discussing each little recurring burst of energy use, whether refrigerator or Jacuzzi, that alerted the public to the issues. Perhaps it was when people read the UCAIug plan for OpenADE, which lists a “Law Enforcement Interface” for energy use as a higher priority than sharing information with the building occupants. Perhaps it was a late-night comedian commenting slyly that at least battery-operated devices could not be tracked, yet. Perhaps it was heightened awareness flowing over from health care debate. However it happened, privacy issues and privacy concerns became front and center at the Grid-Interop and the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP).

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Without clear standards, and with little sense of architectural boundaries, utilities have been slowly extending control directly into the home. ZigBee Smart Energy, OpenHAN, and SEP all are premised on treating the home as an extension of the substation, another asset to serve the operational needs of the central utility. This model does more than infer energy use, as does the Google Energy model; it includes direct registration and recording of the use of each system in the home. With each expanded operation, utilities are gathering additional data that is creating a growing privacy liability.

The NIST Smart Grid Interoperability Report reported that "distributed energy resources and smart meters will reveal information about residential consumers and activities within the house." The panel went on to cite "a lack of formal privacy policies, standards or procedures about information gathered and collected by entities involved in the smart grid." Today, there are no consistent definitions of personally identifiable information in the utility industry. In the week before Grid-Interop, there were numerous privacy meetings, expanding the conversation to include the large internet privacy advocates and public policy think tanks.

Discussions about Next Generation 911 (NG911), which anticipates standards for exchanging situation awareness with emergency first responders, have raised similar concerns. This effort, referred to as BIFER (Building Information for Emergency Responders), anticipates buildings initiating their own 911 calls. It’s easy to leap directly to the whole building conflagration, and to assume that all information a building has should be shared. Emergency first responders, however, include the HAZMAT team responding to a minor spill on the loading dock, which may not include other parts of the building at all. It was useful at a BIFER meeting in Fredericksburg last year to cite the surveillance video of Lindsay Lohan visiting her lawyer that had appeared on the internet the week before.

The utility privacy controversy went mainstream in mid-November when a report was jointly released by the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner and the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF). According to the report, “information may be gleaned from ongoing monitoring of electricity consumption such as the approximate number of occupants, when they are present, as well as when they are awake or asleep.” Utilities would know if customers do not come home until half an hour after bars close each night, and how frequently they use their exercise equipment. And then there is that Law Enforcement Interface named on the work plan for OpenADE…. My daughter Thalia summed up the man-in-the-street view as “if they can see all that stuff, I’m going to disconnect and live off the grid.”

[an error occurred while processing this directive] It seems that few utilities understand this issue at all. Many at Grid-Interop were insisting that that they needed to know more about the contents in every home. Most are still insisting that restrictions on the re-sale of electricity will require them to track every individual electric vehicle and each time and location it plugs in. This surely means that Utility records will be subpoenaed as part of every divorce proceeding.

This creates a great opportunity for intelligent building systems. If you do not want your energy provider to know everything what you do about your home and your office, then you must take responsibility for managing your energy in response to market conditions on the smart grid. Only autonomous systems for energy management will reliably represent the interests of their owners, including interests in privacy.

Privacy is also a risk for building owners and operators. It is likely that building owners will have the same responsibility for the privacy of their tenants that utilities have for their customers. This may expand the opportunity for cloud providers of energy that are able to put appropriate structure in place, including timely deletion of data no longer needed, to meet these requirements.

Privacy may be a service distinguishing one building from another. Privacy will be a mandate on top of building operations. As we continue to automate intelligent buildings, developers, integrators, and owners must consider privacy mandates going forward. Privacy may be a new motivator for living off-grid, or near-grid in Net Zero Energy buildings.

Automated Buildings readers should start considering how they will offer Privacy as a Service.



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