Observers, including myself, occasionally point to the wireless telecom industry as a predictor of issues emerging in the power industry. That could mean mere technological innovation, but today I'm thinking about what I'd call "cultural issues."

"Cultural issues"? I'm talking about data privacy. The issue is cultural at its heart, though law and technology certainly play a role. Human beings' perceptions and feelings about what is right and what is wrong should be the guiding force behind how law and technology are applied. Thus, the link between wireless telecom and grid modernization in the case of data privacy.

The linkage has come into sharp focus with a recent report on the lack of privacy for wireless telecommunications. In an article in The New York Times last week, "More Demands on Cell Carriers in Surveillance," it was revealed that the nation's cell carriers received "a startling 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations." Further, a substantial proportion of these requests (the data is unclear) are made and fulfilled without warrants.

From the article: "While the cell companies did not break down the types of law enforcement agencies collecting the data, they made clear that the widened cell surveillance cut across all levels of government - from run-of-the-mill street crimes handled by local police departments to financial crimes and intelligence investigations at the state and federal levels."

Where's the smart grid parallel? You guessed it: smart meters. I've inveighed at length in this space about data privacy and security and warned that it is the Achilles heel of grid modernization. See three of my columns on the work of Ann Cavoukian, privacy commissioner for Ontario, "Smart Grid `Privacy by Design,'" "Data Privacy Issues" and "Data Privacy Issues, Part II," as well as her well-considered guidelines, Privacy by Design.

You don't have to be a charter member of the tin-foil hat crowd, barking about the United Nations' attempt to control your life, to grasp the fundamental importance of data privacy and the legal and technological means at hand to guarantee it. Yes, there are no guarantees in this world, but we have the means to employ effective safeguards and make violations the basis for societal and commercial ostracization.

I've approached the argument, over time, in an evolving manner and on a number of fronts. To sum up, if cost-effective safeguards are available (and they are, talk to Cavoukian), why not simply employ them and demonstrate how they work? Transparency is the antidote to paranoia.

If you speak to Cavoukian, she'll point out that all the power industry needs is a major breach of customers' personally identifiable information and what's left of the illusion of trust is poof, gone.

Hold the celebration, if you're wearing a tin-foil hat, or claiming health effects from electromagnetic radiation or just making noise because you see President Obama's face behind every bush. We are not in the same camp.

We need smart meters to provide many distribution system efficiencies, such as voltage optimization, and for the application of dynamic pricing and the automated means to take advantage of it.

All I'm saying is that with the example of wireless telecom and the ongoing, widespread violations of privacy that are involved, the power industry either addresses the data privacy issue head-on or it sentences itself to a war of attrition by those who oppose grid modernization for all the wrong reasons.

Phil Carson
Editor-in-chief
Intelligent Utility Daily
pcarson@energycentral.com
303-228-4757