If we ever get a national smart grid off the ground, as the Obama Administration envisioned this week in its newly released "Policy Framework for the 21st-Century Grid," the U.S. could address myriad policy problems with a single new set of infrastructure.
With a smart grid, we could reduce energy consumption to the benefit of the environment. We could save money — and gas — on the meter readers who drive around manually recording your electricity consumption. We could better manage blackouts. We could direct energy to where it's needed most in the event of a crisis. We could even use smart grids to aid law enforcement (imagine if Abbottabad had a smart grid that could tell investigators how much energy was consumed by — and thus how many people lived in — Osama bin Laden's compound).
All of this could be made possible with technology, the answer that promises to address intractable social challenges in every arena from public health to education to immigration. But for every way that digital solutions we can't even envision yet seem poised to tackle problems we've lived with for years, there is a cautionary note. This idea ran throughout the annual conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy this week in Washington (where a particular focus this year was the privacy implications of electronic medical records).
So what could be the downside of the smart grid?
"We, Siemens, have the technology to record [energy consumption] every minute, second, microsecond more or less live. From that we can infer how many people are in the house, what they do, whether they're upstairs, downstairs, do you have a dog, when do you habitually get up, when did you get up this morning, when do you have a shower: masses of private data."
That sounds a little creepy (although Pollock was, at the time, calling for regulation of all that data to protect consumers).
"Our perspective is that this energy usage inside the home, really, in the data, can give somebody a window into what your life is inside," Tien said. And that data has value — not just to you and your energy company. "Because it's so monetizable, there's so much money chasing it, we have to anticipate from a policy perspective all of these attempts to exploit it and to drive it."
Smart grids will be effective precisely because they will harness granular data (not just monthly meter readings) to ensure that electric cars are charged during off-peak hours, or that first responders are able to tap into power even in the midst of natural disasters. But that data — as with the data in sensitive electronic health records — is a double-edged sword if its spread is not controlled.
Consider voting records, which have dramatically improved, in digital form, since the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Almost every state now has a computerized voter registration database, replacing paper records and helping more people to register in locations like departments of motor vehicles and Social Security offices. Officials in many states, however, register voters or maintain voter rolls by comparing digital databases. And if a name, address or number doesn't match up perfectly on, say, a voter roll and driver's license database, that can cost someone the right to vote.
"This is a significant problem in multiple states, a problem we call 'no match, no vote,'" Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center said this week. And the problem disproportionately impacts certain groups of voters — most notably those with what can seem like strange, "foreign"-sounding names.
Technology has similarly brought great hope for government transparency, making it possible for city halls and state houses to post raw public databases online and to freely release online records under open-records laws that previously would have incurred steep photocopying fees.
But that technology also chafes politicians unsure of how the principles of transparency translate to platforms like email, text messages and social networking sites. Earlier this year, skittish legislators in Utah amended the state's open-records law to exempt almost all forms of electronic communication from disclosure (some of them had been embarrassed by the publication of their emails). The law shocked transparency advocates around the country, and a special session was quickly called to reverse it.
All of these examples highlight that technology — and data in massive, massive quantities — may solve our problems at a much higher cost than advertised if policymakers don't think simultaneously about the promise of software and the privacy issues, the innovative databases and the potential data breaches, the digital tools and the way some people may misuse them.