By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

Do people care how smart meters collect data about the electricity they use?

That’s one of the questions a new National Science Foundation-funded grant will permit two School of Information Studies (iSchool) professors to explore in their project, “Data Privacy for Smart Meter Data: A Scenario-Based Study.”

Principal Investigator associate professor Jason Dedrick and Co-Principal Investigator professor and senior associate dean Jeffrey Stanton have been awarded $266,101 in NSF Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research funds to study the issue over the next three years.

“Smart meters” capture data on household energy use at frequent (typically 15-minute) intervals. That helps utilities automate meter reading and billing, detect and respond to outages, and match supply and demand. However, such data collection appears to create some significant privacy concerns for some customers, Dedrick explained.

In order to assess consumers’ perspectives of those concerns, Dedrick and Stanton will be creating realistic scenarios to test in focus groups and through questionnaires. Their goal is to gauge which issues consumers perceive as privacy risks, and to assess the degree of concern they have about various types of data-collection and data-breach situations. Their study also will examine how utilities currently protect consumer data and how well the practices and policies correspond to users’ privacy concerns.

Professors Dedrick and Stanton have been studying smart grid electrical use and adoption for the past three years, working to identify the motivating factors, obstacles, and challenges facing utilities and consumers regarding the technology’s adoption. One of the issues inhibiting greater adoption, they have found, is that smart meter use permits others to view usage patterns, including signatures left by the household’s varied devices and appliance. That added detail could present privacy issues based on how the collected data is used, stored, and shared, Dedrick explained.

While most consumers don’t have a high degree of awareness about that data collection, the scenarios being tested will draw a clearer picture about the types of issues that do concern them, and to what degree, Dedrick said. He noted that some of the testing scenarios will be routine, and others will present more far-fetched potential outcomes of data-sharing. For instance, if one member of a divorcing couple engaged in a child-custody battle obtained meter data showing that the spouse’s household’s Xbox was in use 18 hours a day, that parent could form conclusions about the quality of parenting the other parent is providing, he illustrated. “That might be the extreme, but it illustrates how innocent-looking data, put into different contexts, can be of concern or can be misinterpreted, with people drawing inferences from the data that might not even be accurate.”

Once the results of the study are known, the researchers will meet with utility company representatives to discuss how utilities can balance consumers’ concerns with business objectives and regulatory constraints, the professors said.

Although there are 45-50 million smart meters in use among electric customers today, only a small segment of that population is aware of the meter’s presence, and even fewer take advantage of the meter’s data to monitor their electricity use, according to Dedrick. Whether or not someone is interested enough to check their usage, the study is important to the average user, he said. “I think it matters that people know how their data is being collected and used and that the companies and government agencies who are collecting, using, and sharing it are conscious of consumer and individual concerns. There’s a much broader debate going on about who owns data and what responsibilities companies and individuals have, and what rights to privacy we have.”