You are viewing an archived webpage. The information on this page may be out of date. Learn about EPIC's recent work at

The Smart Grid and Privacy

Concerning Privacy and Smart Grid Technology

Latest News


On December 19, 2007, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was enacted as Public Law 110-140. The bill, among other things, directed that Smart Grid technology be studied for its potential "to maintain a reliable and secure electricity infrastructure that can meet future demand growth."

"Smart" is often used to describe new features or capabilities found in inanimate applications or technologies. These technologies are not human smart, but innovative in that they often provide multi-directional real-time or near real time communication with the user device and provider(s) of a benefit or service(s).

The term "Smart Grid" encompasses a host of inter-related technologies rapidly moving into public use to reduce or better manage electricity consumption. Smart grid systems may be designed to allow electricity service providers, users, or third party electricity usage management service providers to monitor and control electricity use. The electricity service providers may view a smart grid system as a way to precisely locate power outages or other problems so that technicians can be dispatched to mitigate problems. Pro-environment policymakers may view a smart grid as key to protecting the nation's investment in the future as the world moves toward renewable energy. Another view of smart grid systems is that it would support law enforcement by making it easier to identify, track, and manage information or technology that is associated with people, places, or things involved in an investigations. National security and defense supporters may see the efficient and exacting ability of smart grid systems to manage and redirect the flow of electricity across large areas as critical to assuring resources for their use. Marketers may view smart grid systems as another opportunity to learn more about consumers and how they use the items they purchase. Finally, consumers, if given control over some smart grid features, may see smart grid systems as tools to assist them in making better informed decisions regarding their energy consumption.

Smart meter technology is the first remote communication device designed for smart grid application. These meters have moved into the marketplace and are poised to change how data on home or office consumption of electricity is collected by service providers. Additional changes that smart grid systems may bring are not limited to meters but extend to monitoring other devices, e.g. washing machines, hot water heaters, pool pumps, entertainment centers, lighting fixtures, and heating and cooling systems. Consuming electricity will take on new meaning in the context of privacy rights. A Fayetteville, NC smart grid pilot project in claims that it can manage over 250 devices within a customer's home. The system would be able to selectively reduce demand among its 80,000 customers by turning off devices in homes that are part of the smart grid program.

Smart Grids and Privacy

Privacy implications for smart grid technology deployment centers on the collection, retention, sharing, or reuse of electricity consumption information on individuals, homes, or offices. Fundamentally, smart grid systems will be multi-directional communications and energy transfer networks that enable electricity service providers, consumers, or third party energy management assistance programs to access consumption data. Further, if plans for national or transnational electric utility smart grid systems proceed as currently proposed these far reaching networks will enable data collection and sharing across platforms and great distances.

A list of potential privacy consequences of Smart Grid systems include:

  1. Identity Theft
  2. Determine Personal Behavior Patterns
  3. Determine Specific Appliances Used
  4. Perform Real-Time Surveillance
  5. Reveal Activities Through Residual Data
  6. Targeted Home Invasions (latch key children, elderly, etc.)
  7. Provide Accidental Invasions
  8. Activity Censorship
  9. Decisions and Actions Based Upon Inaccurate Data
  10. Profiling
  11. Unwanted Publicity and Embarrassment
  12. Tracking Behavior Of Renters/Leasers
  13. Behavior Tracking (possible combination with Personal Behavior Patterns)
  14. Public Aggregated Searches Revealing Individual Behavior

Plans are underway to support smart grid system applications that will monitor any device transmitting a signal, which may include non-energy-consuming end use items that are only fitted with small radio frequency identification devices (RFID) tags may be possible. RFID tags are included in most retail purchases for clothing, household items, packaging for food, and retail items.

The purpose of an RFID system is to enable data to be transmitted by a portable device, called a tag, which is read by an RFID reader and processed according to the needs of a particular application. The data transmitted by the tag may provide identification or location information, or specifics about the product tagged, such as price, color, date of purchase, etc. The use of RFID in tracking and access applications first appeared during the 1980s. RFID quickly gained attention because of its ability to track moving objects. As the technology is refined, more pervasive-and invasive-uses for RFID tags are in the works.

In a typical RFID system, individual objects are equipped with a small, inexpensive tag which contains a transponder with a digital memory chip that is given a unique electronic product code. The interrogator, an antenna packaged with a transceiver and decoder, emits a signal activating the RFID tag so it can read and write data to it. When an RFID tag passes through the electromagnetic zone, it detects the reader's activation signal. The reader decodes the data encoded in the tag's integrated circuit (silicon chip) and the data is passed to the host computer for processing.

RFID tags come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some tags are easy to spot, such as the hard plastic anti-theft tags attached to merchandise in stores. Animal tracking tags which are implanted beneath the skin of family pets or endangered species are no bigger than a small section of pencil lead. Even smaller tags have been developed to be embedded within the fibers of a national currency.

Many of these advances will take years to integrate into the smart grid system as new technologies and applications are developed. The granularity of control of electricity use could be down to the appliances or devices located within a home or office.

Smart grids may also affect consumers who adopt the of use of solar and wind power. The smart grid could make it possible to transfer excess electricity from power-generating users to others during peak periods.

The types of personally identifiable information that may be collected include details on battery charging information, i.e. amount of life remaining, date, time, location of last recharge, etc; type of personal device; a unique item identification number as well as personalized information, i.e. user name, address etc; location where the item was recharged as well as how long the device was connected to the power source. Initially the information collection may be limited to very basic information, but over time these technologies will mature, which may not be apparent to users as they upgrade technology.


Innovation in other technologies, such as cellphones, televisions, computers, personal digital devices, and household appliances will enable smart grid muti-directional communication among service providers for information on products that may be as mobile as individuals or tied to fixed locations within homes or offices. For several decades work on "Smart House" technology has evolved to increase users' ability to monitor, manage, and control use of electricity service. Discussions about smart grid systems include consideration of wireless communication devices and the Internet's use to support communication transmission.

Public electric utility companies are installing new meter technology and offering smart meters to monitor customer consumption of electricity. Some utilities are offering lower utility rates in exchange for customers agreeing to the installation of smart meters. What might not be well known is the capacity of these new data collection systems to monitor electric utility use within a home or office space. This can include consumption of new appliances fitted with technology that would allow the monitoring their use inside homes and businesses. The move from an Internet of people to the "Internet of things" means that many appliances would come with unique Internet protocol addresses and wireless communication applications. How these devices might be used to collect information on their use, and who would have access to that information, and for what purpose is still unknown. The key to privacy protection is to have the user maintain control over the collection, use, reuse, and sharing of personal information including their use of electricity.


Related Resources


Share this page:

Defend Privacy. Support EPIC.
US Needs a Data Protection Agency
2020 Election Security