If you're an internet hound, you probably surf websites that let advertisers digitally stalk your every move. And you've probably come to terms with that.
Advertisers use 'cookies' to keep track of what you like and dislike to present you with more relevant ads. And if you are on Facebook, you have privacy options that let you control how much information you share with friends and the rest of the world.
Smart phone users deal with privacy issues, too. App developers can tap into vast amounts of data by getting people to hand over their privacy in exchange for the chance to play their game or use their service. People give out their passwords (sometimes the same password they are using for their online banking) to some developer writing code halfway around the world. Or customers are handing their data over to more mainstream app developers like Zynga so they can feed chickens on Farmville.
With every website we visit, every Friend we poke, and every app we download, we are choosing to hand over data in exchange for something we want. But consumer advocates say that the more control we have over what information we give out, the better off we will be.
The same privacy issues are relevant in the smart grid game.
Privacy is a big deal to Jules Polonetsky. In an interview following the "Ensuring Data Privacy" panel at the GridWise Global Forum, Polonetsky, co-founder and director of the Future of Privacy Forum, told me why he set up a think tank to advance responsible data practices in the industry.
About a year and a half ago, Polonstsky decided to devote one-third of his time to smart grid issues.
These days, we are already accustomed to sharing our data.
"We are building a platform like Facebook. We need a little room for privacy and data innovation," Polonetsky said. "The challenging issue is how to make privacy useable for the grid. That hasn't been done well. People don't understand how web surfing is being tracked. We need to take a look at the slowly developing best practices in the world of apps." (For more information, see Can Consumers Be Convinced to Conserve?)
No stimulus money has been spent on poking a friend on Facebook. The social networking giant tapped into human desire -- and that has helped it to go viral. In the smart grid world, there has to be room for the innovators to engage users with their permission to use data on behalf of users and on behalf of companies, Polonetsky said.
Pew Research is finding that users are starting to use privacy tools because they are comfortable with tools to share data. Experience with these dashboards is doing more to drive consumer behavior than education or awareness efforts, Polonetsky said.
"People learn by touching and feeling things: They need to interact with fun devices that make them feel like they are in charge," he said. People who love their smart phones or are addicted to Facebook should identify with this desire.
Ann Cavoukian, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada, said during the privacy panel at GridWise that the notion that control is central to privacy. "You can't just use the data however you want without consulting. Our house is our castle. Unauthorized third-party usage will blow this out of the water. It needs to be built in with an industry in its infancy. It's not about hiding something," she said.
"Utilities are the custodians. In the future, utilities are going to be the wealthiest information holders in the world," Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electric Privacy Center, said during the panel discussion.
But in the case of the Netherlands, a rush of data can hit a road block if customers don't feel comfortable sharing their data. During the panel, Nancy Kabalt, chief customer officer of Alliander, focused on the privacy issues that are unfolding in the Netherlands. The government can track internet usage or where people are in traffic.
"We are having trouble moving the smart meter. People are calling it the espionage meter. Every customer has to give us approval, by signing a letter saying that we can use your data," Kabalt said. The fact that each customer has to physically sign a letter before data can be used would hinder the open innovation platform that is occurring in the smart phone market.
Customers should be able to opt out. "Let's not make this a crazy thing about asking permission," he said.
Polonetsky started to pay attention to the grid when he saw incredible opportunities for great things to happen. "Privacy will lead to exciting services or it will be the Achilles' heel that undermines the best of intentions," he said (see: GE's Immelt: "We Have to Have an Energy Policy. It's Stupid What We Have Today").
The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently put out an important chapter pertaining to privacy issues, representing a broad range of the ideas and thinkers addressing the grid today. "It was put together by business and advocacy groups. It's a good roadmap for smart grid inventors," Polonetsky said.
When you buy a book on Amazon, you are giving away a little bit of your privacy. But you're probably okay with that, because Amazon is transparent about its practices. Amazon uses the information to help you make better choices (and also makes money off of you in the process). You probably don't care about Amazon cashing in, as long as you are happy with what you bought.
"The Amazons and the Netflixs are interesting models because they use sensitive data, and users get that money is being made and understand that their data is used for them. The purposes of the the grid are to help you control your bill and save the environment. Users haven't learned about privacy online [through formal training]. Instead, they learned about it by using websites and services that use data and use features to control the data," Polonetsky said.
Smart grid innovators need to tap into those models to make customers more willing to share their energy information.
It's best to learn from the internet and not repeat mistakes that have already been made in that sphere. For years, Polonetsky, the chief privacy officer for an internet-based company, said it was incredibly hard to get the industry to progress. Too many companies have left the data to lawyers and policy experts and didn't hand it the creative folks.
The creative people are the ones who help users be in control of their experience. So the creative people should be the ones in charge of offering up privacy options (see Build the Grid, Tell The People).
"I think you can successfully make money by putting users in charge of their interactive experience," he said. We are seeing Facebook and game developers like Zynga get rich from all of our data. "We aren't about hiding and being secretive. We want to engage and be in control of who we engage with and on what terms. We want friends, but probably don't want to be around them when we don't look good and don't feel good. Technology needs to reflect the way we live our social lives if it is going to be successful," Polonetsky said.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu echoed that sentiment in a recent address, announcing an investment of $30 million to address cyber security issues in our power grid to keep our lights on and power going. And in terms of innovation, he said it's about time we modernize the power grid and "return to the days of Thomas Edison."