Will Google’s PowerMeter give power to the people or spy on them?

Fri, Mar 26, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Will Google’s PowerMeter give power to the people or spy on them?

    Sometime soon, my refrigerator could be spying on my late night ice cream binges.  Right now it’s just a large frost-free appliance that doesn’t talk back.  But when it starts to network on the Smart Grid via a meter and Google’s PowerMeter application, will Google be analyzing my high-cholesterol snacks?

    This month California’s Public Utilities Commission held a public workshop in San Francisco on Smart Grid technologies. The workshop presentations  addressed the development of policies for the state’s implementation of a Smart Grid system.

    President Obama described the potential benefits of smart meters in October 2009 when announcing the government’s $3.4 billion investment to spur the transition to a smart energy grid.

    Smart meters will allow you to actually monitor how much energy your family is using by the month, by the week, by the day, or even by the hour. So coupled with other technologies, this could help you manage your electricity use and your budget at the same time, allowing you to conserve electricity during times when prices are highest, like hot summer days. Through smart grid technologies utilities will also be able to monitor the performance of the electricity grid in real time, which means they’ll be able to fix problems more effectively. And all this information should help increase renewable energy generation, provide support for plug-in electric vehicles, and reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change.

    Information can save power, but information is power, as well. And what happens with the information collected on my apartment’s appliance and device-specific energy use can also reveal the details of my private life. Did I stay out all night or perhaps off on vacation? Do I depend entirely on my microwave for survival? Do I turn on the air conditioner in the winter to combat hot flashes? Am I watching daytime TV? Sounds as if marketers would be interested, doesn’t it? And if the government is suspicious about any connections to terrorism or criminal acts, it could pursue data previously unavailable.

    My home is my castle and my activities there should be private. I should have a choice about who uses that information.  Google claims it agrees. Presenting itself as an advocate for the consumer, Google urged the PUC to include these “principles” in its smart grid policies: 

    •Consumers should have direct access to real-time electricity usage information.
    •Electricity usage information should be freely available to consumers.
    •Electricity usage data should be made available in a standardized, open format, freely available to third-parties with permission from the consumer. 

    Ah yes, “available to third-parties with permission from the consumer.”
    Who will monitor how third parties use the data that customers have opted to share?  The utilities don’t want that responsibility. “Utilities shall have no obligation to monitor, supervise or control how authorized third parties use the customer data,” stated the presentation of a representative of Southern California Edison.

    Certain utility customer data used in  inappropriate ways could lead to that data playing a part in “discriminatory, anti-competitive or illegal uses,” said Karin Hieta, a staff analyst for the Division of Ratepayers Advocates, a state agency.

    Privacy advocates spoke out at the workshop as well.  Jim Dempsey, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, advocated the FTC’s Fair Information Practice Principles.  “These are the questions you have to ask yourself — what information are you collecting, how long will you store it, who will you share it with?”

    Zack Kalveer, of the Consumer Federation of California, warned: “The sheer volume of data provided by Smart Grid technologies will make it a prospective goldmine for numerous parties other than the utilities themselves, for reasons other than energy efficiency, and used for purposes that do not benefit the consumer: advertisers and marketers will seek to create and utilize increasingly detailed behavioral profiles, law enforcement and the government will seek to monitor our homes, and criminals will seek to steal identities and rob homes.”

    So what’s Google doing on the Smart Grid?

    Google has created PowerMeter as an initiative of its philanthropic arm, Google.org. It’s “a software gadget that shows users detailed information on their home electricity consumption.” When used in conjunction with smart meters, and the sought-after data from the utilities, consumers will be able to analyze their usage and make choices to economize.  Google partnered with Energy Inc. creator of the device TED (The Energy Detective)  “– That means having a smart meter installed by your utility is no longer a prerequisite for using Google PowerMeter! –"   and now has several utility partners where pilot projects are in progress.

    Google PowerMeter is an opt-in service, like Gmail, Google Docs and other Google applications. I can opt out at any time. But if I participate, will I be informed as to how my home energy use data is being used by Google? Is it safe from data breaches? Is it available for government inspection?

    The PowerMeter privacy policy states: “Google uses your personal information to provide the PowerMeter service to you. We may also use anonymized, aggregate information for internal or administrative purposes. Such information does not identify you individually.”

    According to the policy, “Google may share your anonymous, aggregated electricity consumption information with other PowerMeter users, PowerMeter partners, or through an API available to developers.”

    So if I opt in, Google can use my information for its business purposes. Recalling the words of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” I worry about falling asleep with the lights on. I also recall the opening day of Google Buzz, when my frequent Gmail correspondents were revealed. I had believed my addressbook was private.

    I would prefer to save energy and save money too, but before plugging into the Smart Grid, I want to be able to trust that I’m not sentenced to 24-hour electronic monitoring.

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