The Smart Grid Faces Off Against Privacy Rights

by | Apr 9, 2009

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ge-smart-grid2It’s hard to look at a Web browser these days without reading about how an online carbon calculator, smartly tied into the electrical grid, is the answer to all of society’s problems. Even GE is advertising on television about smart grids.

Add in the possibility for improving the bottom line, and it’s easy to see why companies and individuals are considering how best to incorporate data about their energy usage patterns into a Web program that will provide guidance and best practices.

Yet, some are raising the question of exactly how one’s data should be integrated into the larger picture. More precisely, how much information should you give up to the grid without giving away too much?

In the BusinessWeek guest column, “What the Smart Grid Can Learn From Facebook Connect,” Celeste LeCompte of GigaOm opines that there may be parallels between how companies and businesses connect to a smart grid and how people are using social marketing tools.

When considering social marketing Web tools, a big question is whether to go with a tool that relies on federation or aggregation. That is, does a Web tool selectively tie in your personal data or does it gather everything?

LeCompte predicts that, for the smart grid, a federated approach like Facebook Connect may win out because it doesn’t sacrifice privacy.

Facebook has this to say about privacy concerns as it federates content on Facebook Connect: “As a user moves around the open Web, their privacy settings will follow them, ensuring that users’ information and privacy rules are always up to date. For example, if a user changes their profile picture, or removes a friend connection, this will be automatically updated in the external site. And the users can control who can see what pieces of their information – the same rules that they set on Facebook can be applied through your site too using our dynamic privacy controls.”

LeCompte points to a Whirlpool smart appliance device and how it would make decisions based on information from the grid (is this a time of peak power usage?), without giving control of the device to the grid and without divulging back upstream what decisions a consumer makes with the device. Under such a federated approach, LeCompte writes, “The utility, the device maker, and the consumer would all have access to specific information relevant to their own needs without sharing sensitive information.”

Similarly, if a company is tied into the grid, it would want only to divulge information that cannot be used against it. It may not be in the interest of a corporation to share when, how and why it chooses to use its energy. Yet the company – and the smart grid as a whole – may still derive benefit from being tied into the larger picture.

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