The Concept of Energy Privacy

My comments are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of my company.

English: WASHINGTON (Oct. 7, 2011) An advanced...

For the last several years, Personally Identifiable Information, or PII, has been the buzz in privacy circles. That’s old school now. By itself, PII is fairly useless for violating one’s privacy, except as it pertains to identity fraud, or when coupled with other sensitive information that ties our behavior to our identity.

Lately, I’ve been tossing a new phrase in my new role (and really to anyone that will listen): “Energy Privacy.” That is, privacy issues having to do with an energy utility customer’s detailed energy usage information, generally obtained through “smart meters” or “advanced metering infrastructure.” The concept of energy privacy is nothing new to utilities. They’ve been analyzing coarse-grained usage data for years and have been generally very good at protecting customer privacy while doing it.

The difference now is how fine the granularity is becoming. Forget monthly reads. Smart meters are reading our energy usage in near-real time (even though many utilities only collect reads every 15 minutes or every hour.) Privacy professionals typically fear that this means that 3rd parties will be able to tell when customers are home and when they are not based on their usage.

Please. That doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what we can expect.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe smart meters and the smart grid in general can provide some great benefits to everyone: customers, utilities and 3rd parties wanting to sell awesome products and services that will improve our lives and perhaps help preserve the environment. Energy usage information will help utilities build grids that are more reliable and less susceptible to power outages while accommodating more unpredictable renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and a flood of new energy-soaking devices like electric cars. I get it and I embrace it as long as my privacy is respected.

But consider this analogy. Today’s smart meters are akin to binoculars on the sides of our homes. The algorithms used to analyze usage information in order to find patterns that describe how the energy is being used allow anyone with access to it to see inside our homes the types of devices we plug in. For example, refrigerators, air conditioners, or electric vehicles. Analysts can see when we’re using these devices, how often, and how many we have.

Tomorrow’s algorithms will be more like microscopes. Not only will we be able to see that a consumer has a refrigerator, but what brand and model it is, what condition it is in, and even how much food it has in it (full refrigerators use less energy than empty ones…if I know the expected output of your brand and model, I can determine this.) Analysts will be able to tell what you’re watching on television. Tomorrow’s algorithms will be able to not only detect devices, but predict behavior. Of course, early algorithms will be used to determine how we can save energy. That’s a primary reason smart grid exists. But what if an algorithm could be written to determine whether a single parent was neglecting their kids? Not enough food in the fridge, too much time on the game console? Must be bad parenting. What if usage data could be used to detect criminal activity or “unwanted” behavior…I don’t just mean pot growers. I mean anything that society deems unacceptable at the moment. Maybe someone has too many water features plugged in their backyard, or watches TV too much (shouldn’t you be looking for a job?) All that is needed to see an average person’s behavior inside their home is to examine their usage data.

Now couple that with California’s consideration of plans to build an energy data center to house and analyze all this energy usage data. Their intentions are good. They want to help plan future infrastructure needs, especially local governments. They want to help us reduce energy use. But when the government wants to peer inside our homes with a microscope, regardless of their stated intentions, what privacy do we really have left?

Some say that as long as the data is anonymous or aggregated that it should be fine to share the information. Does anyone recall the privacy breach at AOL in which hundreds of thousands of “anonymous” customers were at risk of having their personal searches tied to them? How long will it be before an algorithm is developed that can determine who we are simply by our energy use coupled with the treasure trove of free information available on the Internet, such as Google Maps? How difficult will it be for smart mathematicians to de-aggregate information that we thought was aggregated? I don’t know except that it will be sooner than we think.

Enter the importance of energy privacy. Our energy usage data will say more about us than whether we are home or not. A lot more. This by itself is not a bad thing IF we as consumers have control over whom the data is shared with and how it is used. Give consumers control and confidence builds.

My goal is to raise awareness of the importance–and value–of your energy usage data. So informed, you can begin to participate in the discussion about how your usage information will be used and whom it will be shared with. I believe that as long as consumers have knowledge of the risks of sharing this information, have the ability to decide who they would like to share it with (referred to as “opt-in”), and the ability to review and terminate any such sharing in the future, that the consumer then retains control of this information. Control equals power.

At the vanguard of protecting our energy privacy are utilities (who often get a bad rap for protecting such information) and privacy advocates who understand the potential risks and are fighting to preserve this last bastion of personal privacy. Why should utilities care about your privacy? Its quite simple: They don’t want you to remove the smart meter from your house. Even if you don’t fully trust your own utility, you can absolutely trust that they have an intrinsic business-minded reason to passionately protect your privacy. They want you to participate.

Now is the time for us all to consider how important our energy privacy is inside our own homes and how much intrusion we are willing to tolerate. Ask your utility and your government about your energy privacy and what they’re doing to protect it. Let’s have a conversation and ensure consumers retain the power they have every right to expect.

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Microsoft Adheres to Privacy Principles


Microsoft took a bold step last month in announcing that IE 10 will ship with “do not track” enabled by default. Advertisers are up in arms about it. They claim it will “harm consumers.” Really? When we believe that protecting an individual’s privacy somehow harms them we have entered a very Orwellian world of double-speak.


Microsoft has adhered to a fundamental principle of Privacy By Design: Make privacy the default setting. All of us that ever hated Microsoft for shipping products with security and privacy features turned off (and every other feature turned on!) should be shouting for joy and leaping to defend this embattled company.


Microsoft made the right call. I hope they stick to it.


Will it hurt marketers and advertisers? Doubtful under this voluntary system (see related articles.) But let’s say they played by the rules and did not bypass the setting. If anything, it means marketers will have to try harder to convince consumers to overcome their inertia to disable privacy protection. Or here’s a novel idea, advertisers: Convince consumers to give you the information you want willingly instead of sneaking it from cookies and other deceptive tools.


What is true is that the direction we are headed is generally the wrong one. Everyone from big companies to political campaigns are recognizing the power of “big data” and they all want more of it. And let’s be very honest about why they want it: To manipulate you and me. We can go back and forth all day about it helps get the right ads in front of the right people, but remove all the double-speak and what you have left is manipulation.


I for one don’t want to be manipulated. Catered to, perhaps. Pampered, for sure. But go manipulate someone else as far as I’m concerned. Why not give every person browsing the web that same opportunity for privacy without having to take extra steps to protect themselves? The bold and the foolhardy can always undo the settings at their convenience.


In the end, Microsoft’s choice will not undo the millions of dollars spent on Internet advertising. Nor, unfortunately does the cynic in me believe it will technically protect our privacy. But it has started a conversation, which for now, is good enough for me. I hope more people wake up to the importance of protecting their fragile privacy.





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Infragard Social Media and Public Safety Event

Recently the San Diego chapter of Infragard invited me to speak at our “Social Media and Public Safety” event on May 23rd. The event was held at the beautiful Irwin Jacobs auditorium at Qualcomm’s headquarters. It’s a fantastic facility for such events.

I gave a talk on “Social Media 101” to explain some of the basics of common social media and why emergency and incident responders should be using it. It’s not often that information security professionals talk up the importance of using social media, mostly because we’re so busy preaching why they are so bad for security and privacy. But they are valuable tools that emergency responders can ignore only at their peril. My premise is that if we don’t understand how to use such tools ourselves, how can we help others protect themselves online?

SDG&E arrived to demonstrate their new Incident Command Trailer. Very cool.

My conclusion? Get involved! Use the tools. Learn the culture. Pick a topic you care about and aren’t worried about from a privacy perspective  (like fishing for example!) and post only about that. Anything is better than nothing and nothing is what the bad guys are hoping we will do.

While the event was going on, we used twitter hashtag #sdcssm which was trending locally in San Diego until at least 9pm that night. Take that, #songstogetlaidby!

For those interested in a copy of my presentation, I’ve made it available here.

Privacy? Its by the Men’s Room

Neiman Marcus

Image via Wikipedia

While visiting the local Neiman Marcus in San Francisco I happened to go to the basement floor to visit the restrooms and found this interesting notice about a product called Euclid posted on a small sign.

It reads, “To enhance our customer’s experience, we use Euclid to identify mobile devices in and around our stores. Only the information that your device publicly broadcasts will be collected. If you do not want this information collected, or want to learn more information about Euclid, visit”

On the website, the company swears they care about privacy and they do:

  • Limited data collection
  • Only share aggregated and anonymous information
  • Easy opt-out and delete

To opt out you have to share your MAC address with this company. It seems odd to have to share identifying information with a company in order to enable them not to identify you especially since then they will also have the MAC address of the computer you used to access their website and your IP address too! Apparently the company tracks phones listening for wifi access points so they can determine your MAC address (which uniquely identifies your phone on a wifi network.)

As soon as a hacker worth her salt breaks open their database, the movements of thousands of mobile phones through malls will become public information. How much does Euclid invest in information security? No idea.

Of course, the average person entering the store–or merely walking by– will never see this sign. Consumers are advised to kiss their privacy good-bye and perhaps to turn off wifi and Bluetooth on their phones when not in use.

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Cyber security predictions for 2012

I’m no cyber security visionary…or am I? Everyone else has made their predictions. Here are my top five. Tell me I’m wrong! Does anyone make a living by doing this?

  1. Lots of security professionals will make annual predictions, most of which won’t come true, or will be so general as to be inevitable.
  2. Some organization will experience an insignificant hack which will cause an explosion of attention in the media.
  3. Some organization will experience a significant hack and most will never hear about it because it won’t be sexy.
  4. A security breach will cause a political candidate to change course.
  5. At least one organization will build a business continuity plan around the Mayan calendar.

Privacy? But I have nothing to hide!

Daniel Solove wrote a great article on why privacy matters even if one thinks they have nothing to hide. It is high time to dispel  this myth that if we’re “innocent” that we have nothing to hide.

Let me say it this way: Everyone has some information they do not want to fall into the wrong hands at the wrong time.

You may not have information you think needs to be hidden right now. But in a year, you may decide to run for office. You may have information that you are fine if your local bank sees, but you might be embarrassed if your co-workers had access to it. Otherwise, why not wear your social security number, date of birth and bank accounts on a tee-shirt?

Even if you think you have nothing personal to hide, what about those you love? Parents and grandparents, let me ask you some questions and tell me if they start to make you uncomfortable:

  • What time do your children get out of school?
  • What route to they walk home?
  • How long are they home alone?

There is a strong relationship between privacy and security. Each of the answers to these questions is technically “public” information and could in theory be learned legally by a third party who was very interested in the answers. But that doesn’t mean it’s something we’d want to share with a stranger who suddenly began asking these questions. Let’s face it. Even if we don’t care about our own privacy, surely there is someone’s privacy we do care about.

Everyone has some information they do not want to fall into the wrong hands at the wrong time.

A Fresh Start with Smart Grid

The Internet was a paradigm-changing set of technologies that 30 years ago few could have seen how they would change the nature of the way we communicate, the way we do business and even the way we live. Though resilient, the Internet was built on protocols and standards that were not designed with security in mind, resulting in the creation of an entire industry of security professionals, vendors, standards bodies and regulators to better secure it.

Smart Grid and its own emerging technologies, standards and protocols look to be the same kind of game changer that the Internet was. We can only imagine what new products and services the Smart Grid will enable 30 years from now.

Smart grids also represent a new challenge for security pros. For years we’ve been trained (and in some cases regulated) to implement well known sets of security controls, like firewalls or anti-virus, that help make up for the inherit weaknesses in current computing and network platforms. Isn’t the Smart Grid just another large-scale network that requires the same controls we apply to the Internet?

I hope we don’t think so.

At the 2011 Smart Grid Security Summit in San Diego, I gave a public challenge to the security pros, vendors and regulators that will help secure the Smart Grid. With Smart Grid we must question everything we assume about the traditional security controls we’ve used to secure devices and information on the Internet and focus instead on the basic security principles like least privilege and separation of duties.

My point was not to imply that we don’t need security controls in Smart Grid, nor that controls we use to protect the Internet won’t also work for Smart Grid, but rather that we should be asking ourselves why we need specific controls and what controls could we use instead that might be more effective. In other words, in Smart Grid we have the chance to design it right the first time. This is especially important considering the sheer amount of legacy gear that will have to be protected.

For example, firewalls are a common security control that security professionals recommend for securing networks. On the Internet firewalls serve a necessary albeit more and more ineffective mechanism for minimizing the attack surface of systems that sit behind the firewall. This is because most computing platforms, regardless of brand, and the applications that run on them, are sometimes less than ideal at defending themselves from the innumerable threats against them. Unfortunately, over the last 30 years attackers have learned how to exploit the inherit weaknesses in firewalls (and the people that configure them) so they don’t provide as much value as they could or should.

Does Smart Grid need firewalls? Certainly in some parts of its architecture. Germany has decided to make smart grid gateways a part of every German household. In the Home Area Network environment this may make sense. However, if smart grid components be designed to communicate only with other authorized devices then would smart grid firewalls still be necessary?

Anti-virus is another popular security control that has become a staple of any reasonable security configuration. I argue that anti-virus is a control has already begun to outlive its usefulness in traditional computer networks. We install it despite its weaknesses because it is a control laypersons have come to expect. In some cases, its mandated. But to introduce it to smart grids would be a crutch we could do without. Imagine millions of smart meters or smart transformers trying to download growing databases of virus signatures and store them in their limited memories. This misses an important point. Because of their mission-specific purposes, we should know every line of code in every piece of smart grid software. If this is true, smart devices should know when their code has been tampered with and malicious code replaced with known good. With advanced configuration management, smart grids could be extremely resistant to malware infections without traditional anti-virus software. Such a thing is nearly impossible on our favorite computing platforms. Too many applications. Smart grid software may be much more manageable.

None of this will be easy. Sometimes decisions may be made to do things quickly–or less expensively–than to meet strenuous security design principles. But the challenge stands. We have a unique opportunity to learn from past mistakes and design a system that brings all the benefits energy customers expect and demand in a way that is cost effective and resistant to cyber attack.