White House Smart Grid Report Includes Key Privacy Guidance


Earlier today Future of Privacy Forum co-chair Jules Polonetsky attended the Obama administration’s announcement at the White House for a number of new initiatives designed to accelerate the modernization of the Nation’s electric infrastructure, bolster electric-grid innovation, and advance a clean energy economy.

The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) report focuses on 4 pillars for state and federal policy-makers: (1) enabling cost-effective smart grid investments
(2) unlocking the potential of innovation in the electricity sector
(3) empowering consumers and enable informed decision-making
(4) securing the grid

Some of the issues potentially relevant to consumers’ energy usage data and privacy are as follows. Under pillar (2), the Government will work toward fostering open, uniform technology-neutral interoperability standards and will protect consumer options and prevent anticompetitive practices.  Under pillar (3), state and federal policymakers are called to “evaluate the best means of ensuring that consumers receive meaningful information and education about smart grid technologies and options” (noting that some state regulators already mandate education/outreach programs for smart grid deployments that affect consumers); ensure consumers have access to and control over their energy consumption data in machine readable formats; help foster consumer-facing devices and applications that make it easier for users to manage energy consumption; ensure utilization of Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPP) to help protect consumer information (noting that the Administration supports FIPPs for industries not subject to sector-specific regulation); and update consumer protection policies (in addition to privacy) as necessary to account for new issues. Under pillar (4), the Federal Government will continue to work towards standards and guidelines for cybersecurity through public-private cooperation, including through the promotion of a “rigorous, performance-based cybersecurity culture.”

Regarding privacy specifically, the reports notes that currently “there is not in place a comprehensive and broadly-accepted application of FIPPs in the smart grid context.”  The report talks about the Administration’s support for a broad “consumer bill of rights” which could cover energy usage information.  The Administration also supports a broad array of stakeholders taking “responsibility for implementing FIPPs through privacy rules that are specific to the smart grid context.”  The report lauds FIPPs as “comprehensive, yet flexible” and envisions them facilitating the development of enforceable codes through the collaboration of industries, consumer advocates, and regulators.  The report notes that any rules or guidelines will vary depending on whether energy usage information is shared with third parties.

The report also states that: “State regulators may consider requiring utilities and other firms to provide customers clear information regarding how their data may be used, if consumers authorize such use, and guaranteeing that customers have the ability to select the purposes for which their data may be used.” The report does not advocate either a default opt-in or opt-out approach, but acknowledges that defaults “can be influential.”  It favors FIPPs because they don’t categorically require one approach or the other.

Regarding cybersecurity, the Report refers to the Administration’s proposed cybersecurity legislation and states that “the Federal Government will seek to ensure that grid operators have access to actionable threat information; support research, development, and demonstration of cybersecurity systems and develop human capital; and work with private-sector stakeholders to establish accountability for meeting standards and performance expectations.”
The administration also announced the creation of Grid 21, which is a private sector initiative to promote consumer-friendly innovations while ensuring proper privacy safeguards and consumer protections.

More information and the full text press release can be found at the website for the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Additionally, for more smart grid resources, see the Future of Privacy Forum’s smart grid page.