Consumer Trust and Data Security: Three Issues

By Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor

The advancements in smart grid add one major item to the power network: tons and tons of data. That data trickle comes from multiple endpoints, technologically advanced distribution equipment and newer, smarter appliances. While the utility often asks “What are we going to do with all this data?” the consumer has another question, “Are you keeping all my data safe?”

The First Layer: Beef Up Your Infrastructure

To a consumer, all data connected to their usage is personal and private and should be treated with kid gloves. Before a utility can discuss data security with a customer, however, it has to have and hold the data itself.

Data was the center point issue of all the sessions at UTC Telecom 2011 in Long Beach May 10-13. From use to security, it was all about those small little slices of very important information.

During the case study on data centers on Wednesday, May 11, experts questioned whether current data centers have the capacity to support the data that’s about to hit with the smart grid, specifically smart metering and demand response pilots and programs—all that information that impacts a consumer.

“We’re adapting our infrastructure for a very bright smart grid future,” said Bud Voss, chief technology officer at Comverge during the session. “With smart grid advancements, our data center needs and our back office needs are ever-changing.”

Comverge works with more than 500 utilities with those changing data needs for communications and the smart grid. The company currently operates a data center in Pennsylvania for their demand response program, though they are now building a main location in Atlanta, leaving the Pennsylvania operations as a back-up.

With the smart grid, there is a shift in data collection from one-way to two-way with info coming in and going out every 15 minutes. Voss noted that this creates a massive change, and, now, Comverge needs to analyze business data in real time, which requires expansion.

Comverge suggests adopting an architectural approach to improve security and scalability with the bigger and better data center the smart grid may require—not just for themselves, but for all smart grid-related utilities and vendors. This shiny process is all about creating a solid grid design capable not just of data use and sorting but which also takes into account potential disaster issues and even federal requirements like NERC CIP.

“You have to allow for access points and higher levels of traffic with the smart grid,” said Sanket Amberkar, senior manager of smart grid with Cisco Systems, which worked with Comverge on the data center update. Amberkar also stressed a need for robustness in this type of system and making sure they are scaled even with field deployments.

So, the first step to securing that customer data starts with making sure your infrastructure and data center is up to snuff, that the house holding that data is solid.

The Second Layer: Securing the Transfer

Once a utility updates the data center and the infrastructure itself is tough and ready, what’s the next step to keeping customer data secure? How about making sure the way that data flow is not just safe in the center and end bits like a consumer meter, but also safe as it travels as well? How do we do that? We go to the cloud.

Michael Sanderson, vice president of engineering with Proximetry, feels that utilities overlook one area that utilities could really use to secure data: software that makes better decisions. He spoke to POWERGRID International at the UTC Telecom Conference.

Security can be input into cloud formatting, allowing for automatic security perimeters via software. Utilities with network clouds could “flip a switch” and tell those cloud data guardians that networks used to transmit data must have specific attributes or it cannot use that network.

In this way, the software takes over the decision for engineers, making security-based encryption-level decisions in a split second and translating a older, slower and manual concept of security to a more automatic one.

“In the end, it’s faster to take out the manual process,” Sanderson said. “The engineer doesn’t need to know the underlying network. And, you reduce errors that inevitably come about with manual decisions.”

Andres Carvallo, Proximetry’s chief strategy officer and the man who coined the term “smart grid” while at Austin Energy a few years ago, chimed in that security at this level should work more like a home router. The average consumer bought the router, plugged it in and set it up, but has no idea how it functions on a specific, engineering level. And, they don’t have to.

“Many available network solutions require too much knowledge,” Carvallo said. “Now that everything has to be managed—especially security—with the smart grid, it’s just too much.”

“We need to bring the simplicity of home Wi-Fi to power,” he added. “Painless self-healing of networks is key.”

So, you shore up the infrastructure, prep the data center and switch to software that can self-heal and protect data automatically. That’s the end, right? You’re done and secure.

Not quite.

The Final Layer: Communicate your Communications Security

The customer must remain in this equation. Even if you’ve shored up the data center and infrastructure and lined up all your clouds in a delightful, neat little row with silver linings of ultimate security, none of that matters if you don’t pass on that good info to the consumer.

And, sometimes, the consumer doesn’t really want to listen.

ONCOR, the T&D utility in Texas began a smart metering program in 2009 in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and beyond. But, they developed a problem in the middle of this replacement plan, according to Kelly McNair, director of telecom strategy at ONCOR during a UTC Telecom session. There was a bit of a convergence with a cold winter, a record snowstorm, a few minor meter reading errors and longer billing periods. All of this lead to significant complaints from consumers, who were unaware of any of those things. Now, the data didn’t change, but the consumer didn’t know that. The consumer thought their data was wrong, explosive, out in the open or manipulated by the utility or a third party entirely.

ONCOR offered free independent testing of smart meters to prove they were working properly and sorting the data correctly.

Now, ONCOR has not found any inaccurate meters—no stray data, no neighbors plugging into personal consumer data—but that doesn’t mean the consumer believes that. Navigant Consulting came in independently and said the data was correct and the communication system used by ONCOR was working fine. In the end, this wasn’t a problem of data accuracy or security. It was a “customer and a people problem,” McNair noted.

McNair and the other panelists see the people problem as one of the more simple security solutions. You don’t have to beef up data centers or program smart network clouds. This level of communications is all about personal discussion: Talk to the customer. Let them know what you’re doing to protect their data. They’ll listen.

So, making sure that consumer data is protected isn’t just about cybersecurity itself. It’s prepping data center for a smart grid onslaught, shoring up the pathways the data travels and letting the consumer know just how their local utility is working to keep everything updated and safe. Keeping an eye on communications runs the spectrum from technology to consumer and back again.

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