by Andy Bochman, author of the Smart Grid Security Blog and an Energy Security Lead for IBM’s Rational division.
Next month, I’ll be meeting with key industry experts to discuss Security metrics at the EnerSec Smart Grid Security Summit in San Diego. We’ll covering the challenges with, and business benefits of measuring utilities’ smart grid with the right metrics, including organizational security maturity. This got me thinking about consumers and behavioral economics and what we value as important. Is it convenience, social acceptance, security, privacy, price?
If you live in a region where smart meters have yet to arrive, then this may not matter much to you … yet. But if, in the last few months or years you’ve found a utility technician swapping out your stone-age mechanical electricity meter for a new 21st century, computerized Smart Meter, then you may be tuned into the discussions on whether this change is a good or bad thing for you or your family.
As someone who follows the issue as part of my day job at IBM, as well as an after hours blogger, I am certainly inclined to say that having a Smart Meter is an important first step that will enable some great new capabilities for you, once the rest of the grid, in the form of the coming Smart Grid, catches up. Though it’s largely been held in check thanks to cheap coal and newly cheap natural gas, the cost of electricity has been increasing in many regions and it’s expected that costs will rise more in coming years. It’s also projected that the proliferation of new electronic devices in the home will amplify the impacts of price increases. Most notably, these include multiple large HD screens today, and electric vehicles tomorrow. Smart Meters are the first step in helping consumers get a better sense of their electricity use patterns, make adjustments, and keep their bill down, by being able to see their amount their currently using as well as the cost of electricity at that time.
In most regions of the US and the world, these capabilities won’t fully arrive for a little while … depending where you live, maybe several years from now. But when they do, it’ll mark a major change in the way we think about electricity and how we interact with our utilities. It’ll be much more of a self service model where individuals will have much more control. But along the path to this better approach to electricity delivery and consumption, consumer groups and journalists have remarked on potential risks that attend the deployment of Smart Meters. Some, like health concerns related to radio frequency emissions the meters use to communicate with utilities, have been largely allayed by scientific studies showing they are not harmful. But others, like privacy concerns, persist.
In theory, should a hacker or other cyber intruder gain access to your electricity usage data, they might be able to infer when you’re not home or not awake. In my humble opinion, there are far simpler, less technical ways of making these observations today.
But this position aside, there are real reasons why protecting your data is important, and we are now seeing significant safeguards emerge in places like California that mandates utilities follow certain rules and procedures when handling electricity usage data that can be linked with individuals. That’s what makes it a privacy concern, by the way. Usage data that’s not associated with any one person has very little value to a would-be criminal.
Canada, and in particular Smart Meter leader Ontario, places a very high premium on protecting customers’ privacy. This is largely the case across much of Europe, as well, and with California’s leadership, similar privacy protections will likely ripple across the rest of the US in coming years.
What I’m trying to say is, at least for me, the arrival of Smart Meters brings 99% potential goodness, and 1% uncertainty over how the data they generate at my residence could be mishandled or manipulated. In this day and age, for better or worse, most of us have learned to live with technologies (see: the web, social media, etc.) that expose some of our personal data online. My recommendation to you is get to know your Smart Meter and get ready to step out into your new energy future with confidence.
Andy Bochman is author of the Smart Grid Security Blog and an Energy Security Lead for IBM’s Rational division, where the focus is on securing the software that runs the smart grid. Andy is a contributor to industry and national security working groups on energy security and cyber security. He lives in Boston, is an active member of the MIT Energy Club, and is the founder of the Smart Grid Security and DOD Energy Blogs.