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10/14/2009
04:02 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Big Brother Looking To Control Your Smart Grid?

Is Big Brother about to muck about with your toaster? That's that latest concern--out of left field though it may be--which is being raised about Smart Grids, the technological push du jour to update our creaking electricity transmission infrastructure with efficiency inducing digital controls. Or, as I call it, the utility is the network.

Is Big Brother about to muck about with your toaster? That's that latest concern--out of left field though it may be--which is being raised about Smart Grids, the technological push du jour to update our creaking electricity transmission infrastructure with efficiency inducing digital controls. Or, as I call it, the utility is the network.Forgive my apparent smart-grid snark. If this is not exactly scintillating stuff, it's nevertheless very significant. As I recently wrote on NetworkComputing, smart grids are the subject of a major thrust by no less a player than Cisco. The networking behemoth has corralled computer, electronics, and utility industry players into an alliance called the Smart Grid Ecosystem.

Along with acting as a kind of cooperative contracting alliance, primed to feed at the trough of federal monies which will fund many upcoming smart grid projects, the group is pushing ahead with technical standards "to support interoperability testing and enable industry migration to an IP-based infrastructure for smart grids and energy management applications."

Other industrial-tech heavy hitter--notably GE and IBM--are also players in smart grid, so you know this stuff is not small potatoes.

Indeed, as with so-called "green" tech, smart grid is no longer just a vague term in search of an economic raison d'etre. It's a real business opportunity in the real word.

However, as such, some of its, er, challenges are showing. Topping this list is security. (Interesting that this is always first up when real customers sign on to something--just look at cloud computing.) Security is such a big deal that the National Institute of Standards and Technology has issued a report entitled "Smart Grid Cyber Security Strategy and Requirements."

The salient--and scary--takeaway from this report is that, whereas previously the electrical grid was vulnerable to physical attacks, in the future, any bad actor, domestic or foreign, might be able to turn cities dark using only a laptop.

Next to that stuff, the concerns of one Whitman Brisky of Glenview, Ill., would appear to pale in comparison. In the letters section of the The Wall Street Journal, Brisky recently wrote the following:

"I am quite concerned about the ability of the so-called 'smart grid' to remotely control appliances in homes without the owners' consent. I have no problem with variable pricing or with the ability of consumers to receive information from the smart grid to allow them to adjust their own energy use. However, allowing the smart grid to control appliances from outside will be yet another huge loss of liberty."

I give Mr. Brisky credit for out-of-the-box thinking here, though I'm not sure I agree with the "huge" part. It's more like a chipping away at appliance autonomy. I also don't see where one's toast-making proclivities would be all the much of a privacy issue, though perhaps there are household-device habits one would not wish to expose to outside data-gathering.

Mostly, I think the loss of liberty will be far less of an issue for the average person than will be the surely increased cost of "smart-grid-capable" microwaves and ranges.

Follow me on Twitter: (@awolfe58)

What's your take? Let me know, by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me directly at alex@alexwolfe.net.

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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.

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