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Concerns About Customer Privacy

Do 'smart meters' reveal too much?

AARP Texas Smart Meter Privacy Concerns, man in chair

Leonard Strub, 69, of Allen, is concerned that “smart meters” designed to tell the utility how much power is being used at any time will compromise his privacy. — Photo by Coke Whitworth/Aurora Select

Leonard Strub is among the millions of Texans getting a new electric meter that can tell how much energy his home is using at almost any moment. He's wary that the "smart meter" technology will compromise his privacy.

The meters that constantly monitor household electricity usage "collect and transmit an enormous amount of information," said Strub, 69, of Allen in the Dallas area. "All of it kind of leaves the consumer at risk."

See also: Fighting against utility rate increases.

State law prohibits utility companies from sharing customer usage information unless the customer gives permission. "The customer owns the data," said Terry Hadley, spokesman for the state Public Utility Commission (PUC).

But AARP Texas, where Strub is a volunteer, and other groups question where the customer information might end up. They want to make sure it doesn't become easy to share with marketing firms and that it doesn't mistakenly fall into the hands of identity thieves or burglars.

"There are third parties that want access to the data," said Tim Morstad, AARP Texas associate state director for advocacy.  Electricity usage might reveal the type of TV set someone owns, he said, or whether anyone is home.

Electricity consumption may be higher if someone is cooking or washing clothes or lower if nobody is home. That degree of detail is sent to the utilities' computers from customers' homes every 15 minutes.

In a letter to the PUC in December, AARP Texas said it is concerned that the agency is "exploring new avenues" for third parties to access smart meter data. If third-party access to smart meter data is being considered, it should be done in a process that's open to the public, the letter stated.

AARP Texas said it wants "baseline privacy protections" for consumers. Among them are requirements for third parties to protect consumer data and for the PUC to make sure third parties don't have a habit of noncompliance with state or federal regulations.

Smart meters, also known as advanced meters, are proliferating across Texas, replacing meters that were read by a person once a month. Proponents of the devices say they let consumers track their real-time electricity costs and help them conserve more energy.

Next: Utility guards usage data. >>

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