Your Smart Meter's Data Belongs in Your Personal Cloud

Last spring I installed a smart meter that sits in my electrical panel, measures the power my house is using, and shows us the data. It talks to a little remote console in the dining room. That realtime display is a really effective behavior changer. You soon develop a sense of what's normal for a given time of day. If my wife's reading in the living room after dinner and I see an unexpected 400 watts, I know she left the lights on in the studio, I'll ask if she's done for the day, and if so I'll head over to the studio, turn off the lights, and conserve the 400 watts. You'd be surprised, or maybe you wouldn't be, to see how those negawatts (and negadollars) add up. It's also nice to know you're not burning coal to light empty rooms.

The data that flows to the console, by way of AC networking and Zigbee wireless, also flows to my home LAN and thence, if I choose, to the web. At one point I was sending it to Google PowerMeter. When that service ended last fall, I had the option to send the data elsewhere. I haven't, yet. That's partly because the realtime console delivers most of the impressive benefit we get from using the gadget. And it's partly because, well, frankly, I worry that quantified-self-style geekery could become a slippery slope for me. Nonetheless my smart meter is, at least potentially, part of my personal cloud. But that's not how it will typically be. If a power utility installs your smart meter, it'll phone home and send the data there. Will you be able to get it back? Maybe.

When I was installing the gadget, I heard a segment of Living on Earth about the privacy concerns raised by smart meters. Suppose, for example, you routinely come home and turn on lights at 2AM. Suppose an insurance company gets hold of that data and correlates it with the hour at which bars close?

The story ends like this:

As policy makers figure out how to approach this entire new terrain, they need to be cognizant of the fact that there are serious privacy concerns out there, and much of the legislation and statutes that deal with privacy have no idea what to do when it comes to the smart grid because this is so new.

Smart meters are new. But we can't afford to think that every new technology rewrites all the rules, requiring new legislation which, as we know, can never keep pace with innovation. Here's a powerful simplifying rule: it's your data. That's the default. And you shouldn't need to be a do-it-yourselfer to assert ownership. Even if you use a utility-supplied meter, as most people will, it's still your data.

Here's how I want it to work. The smart meter relays the data to your personal cloud. You control who can access your data, and on what terms. You only want the power company to measure cumulative usage monthly as they do now? That's your choice. You want them to see the realtime feed because you think they can make good use of it? That's your choice too.

In Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explore the power of systemic defaults, and the consequences of setting them one way or the other. Part of the reason for the retirement savings crisis we face, they argue, is a misconfigured default. 401K savings plans were opt-in instead of opt-out. If we choose the right defaults, and if our personal clouds can implement them, smart meters and a bunch of other innovations won't create new privacy headaches and won't require new laws.