Could Privacy fatigue pull the plug on local renewable energy?

Could Privacy fatigue pull the plug on local renewable energy?

By Carol Vigurs, UCL Social Research Institute, University College London

17th June 2021

BBC News - 16th April 2021 - Facebook faces mass legal action over data leak

BBC News - 25th February 2021 -  Npower app attack exposed customers' bank details

BBC News - 23rd November 2020 - Children's names shared in email 'breach of trust'

BBC News - 12th December 2019 - How ‘dark patterns’ influence travel bookings

It seems like every week, newspaper headlines are reporting on data breaches, data misuse, shady data practices and other unfair data dealings.  But what impact does this have on peoples trust and willingness to share data now and in the future?  What does this mean for renewable energy?

So, there is a seeming consensus and an eagerness towards renewable energy to tackle climate emergency, reach net zero carbon targets and “build back better”  after Covid19.  At the same time people are becoming exhausted and cynical  over the never ending stream of stories of data leaks, misuse and shady practices around data collection and threats to their privacy  that happen without their awareness, consent or control. So will this “privacy  fatigue”  pull the plug on energy use data sharing at the very same time as the drive towards renewable energy through Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES)? 

SLES rely on customers willingness and consent to share their energy use data to enable the balance of supply and demand to be finely tuned to optimise the intermittent energy characteristic of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy.

We do know that trying to make people share data without addressing privacy concerns can backfire, leading to active resistance to data gathering technologies, like  smart meters (Hess, 2014; Hoenkamp, 2012), or by passive resistance through simply not engaging with technology that can collect data (McCabe 2018).  No matter what the wider benefits of data sharing may be, such as more efficient energy use, and accurate and cheaper bills and the wider benefits of greater use of renewable energy sources, it won’t come to anything without peoples consent.

Research on privacy fatigue finds that….“While anxiety led  to no particular behavioral response, anger and disappointment resulted in actionable and retributive coping behaviors”  (Jung and Park 2018) .

So what can be done to address people’s privacy concerns?

During our research we have reviewed previous research to find out what peoples privacy concerns could be. We have found that people have very different kinds of privacy concerns and that these concerns were highly context dependent.

We examined the literature on privacy concerns  about sharing energy use data against of a theory based around human development, Bronfrenbrenner  socio-ecological framework. This framework was set up to help understand the different webs of relationships that people live in,  where privacy concerns may differ according to these contexts and relationships within them.

Customer privacy concerns can be understood as the management of personal information. Potential breaches of privacy can be thought of as leakage from one domain to another; from appropriate to inappropriate domains, what expert Helen Nissenbaum calls “Contextual Integrity”. Other privacy concerns identified included fears that personal data would be exploited for financial gain or that reputation may be damaged, people may be categorised into social, political or economic groups that are hidden and cannot be challenged or changed together with an unbalance the distribution of power and control within the home. Addressing privacy concerns really should empower the customer to have autonomy, control and the power to challenge when mistakes are made, if people change their minds or withdraw consent.

We have summarised our findings of privacy concerns into 8 general design (and redesign) principles to enable individual power, choice and control over a data collection:

  1. Recognise mutual benefits of data sharing for smart local energy systems and work with customers as partners.
  2. Involve people in the design of data sharing technologies from the start.
  3. Give people a say on the third parties that they are happy to share data with.
  4. Empower people to set the boundaries around the flow of information about themselves.
  5. Ensure that the purpose and value of the data collected are transparent and fair.
  6. Ensure that everyone affected by sharing of data are involved in giving their informed consent.
  7. Recognise that technologies for revealing and monitoring behaviours in the home can be used in unexpected and unwanted ways.
  8. Ensure there are channels of feedback and ongoing communication to continuously improve service delivery.

Practical recommendations for SLES designers following these principles can be found in the EnergyRev Insights report.

Resistance to sharing data may not be directed at data collection per se, but in the context of general privacy fatigue, where “no” becomes the default,  safest option, regardless of the potential benefits that could be had. Customers will need to be persuaded to overcome these privacy concerns in ethical design principles as outlined above and data collectors/holders will need to demonstrate clear mechanisms that maintain the control over the flow of information and its audience and purposes.  

Photo credit: Cassie Boca, Unsplash