October 04, 2013

Research Explores Smart Grid Privacy Issues

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Kemal Akkaya, associate professor of computer science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, received a $298,112 National Science Foundation grant to explore ways to protect consumer privacy as the more resilient, but inherently nosy, Smart Grid gradually replaces our outmoded national power grid.

The Smart Grid is the U.S. Department of Energy’s answer to updating last century’s electric skeleton so that we can all remain “plugged in” with newer technology and more devices.  One of its key elements is the widespread use of smart meters.  The Smart Grid Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) essentially is the integrated system of smart meters, communications networks, and data management systems.

“The modernized Smart Grid (SG) is expected to enable several new applications such as dynamic pricing, demand response and fraud detection,” Akkaya said.  “However, collection of such fine-grained data raises privacy issues.”

By privacy issues, Akkaya means that specific information -- such as when a household member is in the shower -- could become available to third parties, such as overly curious neighbors or potential burglars.        

What’s good about smart meters -- 15 million of which are already in use -- is information. The old style meters tell a household how much energy it’s using, but not how. A smart meter can, for example, help a household identify what appliances are using the most energy -- and that can help household members make decisions that directly affect their energy bill each month.

Smart meters can also assist utilities providers.

“Utilities providers would like to gather power usage information from customers every 15 minutes,” Akkaya said.  “The goal is to have power map of cities in real-time, and to generate electricity based on the exact need. In addition to customer data, they also plan to deploy sensors on
power lines and substations to collect data about the quality of the power generated. Plus, they would like to do state estimation (power system monitoring) of their power network.  This component of the Smart Grid is called wide area situation awareness.”

The results can mean lower energy costs to consumers. It can also mean more efficient management of the infrastructure, which is also good for the environment. The Energy department notes that an efficiency improvement in the grid would significantly reduce fuel and greenhouse gas emissions.

That all sounds wonderful -- but what’s bad about smart meters is the same thing as what’s good about them: information.   

That’s why Akkaya’s research is important.  To make the smart meters useful, the data must be communicated. That presents a problem of too much data too widely available, Akkaya said.

“When I first read about the techniques for analyzing power usage data of a house during a 24-hour period, I was surprised to find that it is very easy to extract detailed information abut the types of appliances in use at the house -- if you did laundry, ironing, or watched TV,” he said.  “Obviously this is a privacy concern, and some studies have addressed this.  However, they were never tested in terms of the communication overhead they would bring to the AMI network.  My focus on this aspect of the problem is what caught the attention of the NSF, I believe.”

Akkaya said an economical and efficient solution to protecting consumer privacy is to use existing communications infrastructure rather than relying on the Smart Grid for both data collection and communication. He will use technology similar to Wi-Fi hotspot technology to create wireless mesh networks.  A utility company could use such a network over its coverage area, and could employ privacy protection mechanisms to ensure that only relevant data is available to those who need to access it, while other data is protected.  The billing department, for example, would know how much to charge a household, but not that the household has a home theater system in the basement.

“These (privacy protection) mechanisms can be easily adapted by utility companies to ensure user privacy and security with a useable, easy-to-deploy, affordable, and scalable underlying communication structure,” Akkaya said.  He added that affordability and privacy protection would make it easier and safer for more consumers to participate in the Smart Grid network.

Akkaya will test his theory by building a model wireless mesh network at SIU.  He will use the model to investigate various privacy protection techniques that limit accessible data. He plans to keep his research open to the public as he is conducting it to maximize the immediate benefit to utility companies, researchers and educators involved in Smart Grid research.

“The project will make a great impact on the curriculum of computer science programs, and undergraduate and graduate research opportunities at SIU,” he said.