Privacy and the Modern Grid

27 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2011 Last revised: 1 May 2012

Date Written: September 26, 2011


The modern electrical grid is evolving from an outdated network to a "smart grid" system equipped with sophisticated "smart meters." This transition brings with it new threats to privacy. The smart grid's essential innovation is information, and the data that is collected and stored by smart meters can be analyzed to reveal medical conditions, criminal activity, and other information on life within the home. This data is not clearly covered by existing, sector-specific federal privacy statutes. Fully realizing the benefits of the smart grid, however, requires bringing advanced meters into as many homes and businesses as possible. As a result, it is unlikely that consumers will be permitted to opt out of smart meter installation.

To secure individual privacy and consumer trust during the deployment of this technology, an individual's smart meter data should be protected from suspicionless access by law enforcement. This paper discusses two potential sources of privacy protections: the courts, through the Fourth Amendment, and Congress, through new federal privacy legislation. It explains why the third party doctrine should not be interpreted to defeat Fourth Amendment protections for an individual's smart meter data. Securing consumer trust, however, may require greater assurance than prognosticating a future Court's ruling can provide. Therefore, this paper also proposes two models for federal legislation to protect individual privacy.

Keywords: Fourth Amendment, third party doctrine, data, informational privacy, data privacy, privacy, electricity, electrical grid, energy, smart grid, smart meter, utilities, public utility, third-party doctrine

JEL Classification: K30, K39, K40, K42, Q40, A48, A49

Suggested Citation

McNeil, Sonia, Privacy and the Modern Grid (September 26, 2011). Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, Vol. 25, Fall 2011, Available at SSRN: or

Sonia McNeil (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics