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Concerns about energy-use data

In 1992, I wrote parts of a report for the National Regulatory Research Institute in the US on privacy and competitive implications for transaction-generated information (a term that has been eclipsed by the less informative “big data” in recent times). We covered all utilities, including electricity. Burns,Robert; Samarajiva, Rohan & Mukherjee, Roopali (1992) Customer information: Privacy and competitive implications, NRRI 92-11 . Columbus OH: National Regulatory Research Institute.

Now, 20 years later, the issue is hot, the subject of a BBC story:

The EDPS report voices concern over the “potential intrusiveness” of smart meters, which it says can track what members of a household do in the privacy of their homes.

It says smart meters are useful because they help suppliers plan the supply of electricity and gas more effectively, as well as allowing consumers to take advantage of lower price tariffs.

But the report highlights fears that regular frequent smart-meter readings, unless safeguarded, might also tell criminals when a house was unoccupied.

Third-party companies – like marketing firms – might be able to learn about consumers’ sleeping patterns, whether they watched television or used certain tools, entertain guests or even used medical devices like dialysis machines.

The report adds: “Information about energy usage can have high commercial value.”

The position I reached at the end of my work on TGI in the 1990s was that we’d have to establish a balance between the need to safeguard a person’s autonomy and the need to provide services efficiently using TGI. It was explicated in Samarajiva, Rohan (1997), Interactivity as though privacy mattered, in Technology and privacy: The new landscape, eds. P. E. Agre & M. Rotenberg, pp. 277-309. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Absolutist positions on either side will not help.

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