By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

The Sloan Foundation has awarded funding to expand the efforts of two School of Information Studies (iSchool) researchers who are looking at the issue of data privacy regarding smart energy-reading meters – and now, additional smart home devices.

A Foundation award of $48,900 will expand an existing study about perceived privacy risks of smart devices that collect and transmit data to the utility companies that install them. The project is the work of Professor and Associate Dean for Research Jason Dedrick, as principal investigator, and Professor and Interim Dean Jeffrey Stanton, as co-principal investigator. The new funds will permit them to add more geographical regions with additional utility regulatory environments, and an array of other smart devices to the study.

The current project was funded for two years through a 2014 National Science Foundation EAGER (Early Concept Grant for Exploratory Research) grant of $266,101. Titled “Data Privacy for Smart Meter Data: A Scenario-Based Study,” the project examines how consumers perceive the privacy risks associated with using home-based smart energy meters which collect data for the electric utility.

Do Consumers Care?

Among the research questions the main study addresses is whether people care about how smart meters collect data about their electricity use, and then how that data might later be used by the utilities. Even though smart meters help utilities automate meter reading and billing, detect and respond to outages, and match supply and demand, some consumers still may have concerns about the privacy of that collected data, and what it can reveal, as well as how it is stored and used, Dedrick explained. Smart meters typically capture data on household energy use at frequent (typically 15-minute) intervals.  

Realistic Scenarios

In the initial scope of research, Dedrick and Stanton are creating realistic scenarios to test the levels of concern consumers may have. With focus groups and questionnaires as their tools, their will gauge which issues consumers perceive as privacy risks, then assess the degree of concern there may be about various types of data collection and data breaches. The study also examines how utilities currently protect consumer data and how well those practices and policies correspond to users’ privacy concerns. The study is focused on the Central New York area and local consumers.

New Devices

The Sloan Foundation funding will add some new elements. It will permit the study to include more types of electrical devices that are networked and used in homes–such as smart thermostats, smart lightbulbs, refrigerators that can be controlled remotely, electric cars, and solar panels. Energy consumers are interested in seeing the data such devices collect, Dedrick said, in order to know how much power they are using, the amount they may be generating, at what times of day their usage occurs, and how much money they are saving or the degree of costs they are incurring by the way they use electricity.  

“In the past year, even since we started the project, there’s really been an explosion of interest in these smart devices in some parts of the country,” Dedrick observed. “Just focusing on the meter seemed limited because the ways data is being measured, communicated, and shared with people has grown a lot. Given the way these technologies are going, it made sense that our study should capture that.”

Three More Regions

The study also will expand by three more geographic regions the assessment of consumer attitudes, adding Northern California, Houston, and Michigan’s Detroit/Ann Arbor areas into the study. The extension not only provides different geographies, varied electric suppliers, and additional regulatory environments, it now also represents markets where consumers already have been exposed to and have experience with metered data collection and sharing, Dedrick said. “Going to the other parts of the country makes sense, since we can see how people in other places see privacy under certain conditions, especially people who have had a lot of experience with smart meters. We’re going to have much richer and more useful findings because we’re able to extend the project like this,” he added.  

The Sloan Foundation funds also will add another aspect to the project, permitting researchers to conduct a workshop this winter with utility companies. Using insights from consumer focus groups, the researchers plan to discuss the results of their findings, talk about the policies utility companies follow, and then get utility company feedback.

According to its website, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation makes grants primarily to support original research and broad-based education related to science, technology, economic performance and the quality of American life. The Foundation is unique in its focus on science, technology, and economic institutions, and on the scholars and practitioners who work in these fields, believing they are chief drivers of the nation’s health and prosperity.