JUICE: Power = Knowledge

By Published On: May 3, 2013

With mixed emotions I pass up tempting discounts offered by store loyalty cards. I don’t want my purchases tracked and used to enable a company’s unwelcome marketing pitches. But I wonder if I’m giving up the savings for nothing. Buying with a credit card—even without the loyalty addition—my purchases are tracked, just by another firm. When I go online to buy office supplies or read reviews on Yelp, my internet activities also are an open book read by companies pushing products. While I do what I can to maintain some semblance of privacy, particularly in my home, it is an uphill battle. Cell phones, their cameras, near-universal access to the web, and smart meters all reveal intimate details of my life. At least with “smart” meter data, there is ongoing debate at the state level about who gets access to data about when I shower, sauté vegetables, leave my pets alone, my kids with latchkeys, or surf the web. Also under discussion is who decides whether my energy use should be revealed, how much gets released and in what form. The biggest issue is how much of my personal data should get clumped with—or aggregated—with other ratepayers’ power info. Marketing companies are chomping at the bit for access to detailed smart meter information to propel their products. At the same time, some policy makers and consultants are calling for greater data transparency for bona fide reasons. "Everywhere you look data is being mined, a lot of it for marketing research,” said Ken Alex, director of the Office of Planning & Research. “It is time to use it on behalf of the public and public interest." He and others insist the current limits on utility energy data impede tracking the effectiveness of utility energy savings and demand response programs and of clean energy efforts in California. “There is virtually no baseline data” against which to measure on-the-ground savings from energy efficiency programs and the effectiveness of renewable and climate protection mandates, Dr. Stephanie Pincetl, adjunct professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at the Institute of the Environment & Sustainability at the University of California at Los Angeles, said during a “thought leaders’” session at the California Public Utilities Commission last month. Data transparency is a big deal. Pincetl noted that comparing imputed results from program models with real results could reveal whether a program is working. It is also a critical tool for guiding and improving energy planning, forecasting and rate equity. Private utilities are resisting the push for increased data transparency, asserting that consumer privacy would be compromised. I find their pleas disingenuous given the years they’ve spent pushing smart meters and fighting opt-outs for those who want to keep their analog meters. Utilities aren’t alone. Privacy advocates insist that revealing smart meter data violates the 4th Amendment and its prohibition again unreasonable searches. “Our sacred space is in the home,” said Lila Bailey, University of California, Berkeley, Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy clinic teaching fellow. Are policymakers’ good intentions on data transparency paving the way to data hell? Is it a choice between my dedication to supplying info to the state that is supposed to reduce all of our carbon footprints or my privacy? It is not a choice between the greater good or pulling down the shades. Regulators should continue their efforts to carefully weigh and craft how much, in what form, and whom to release my data. The state must allow me to decide whether or not I want my energy data use revealed. After all, they gave my utility the OK to slap on a smart meter without my consent—albeit with a belated opt-out option. That same choice should apply to the data revealed by that gizmo on the side of my house. Let me decide who I want to see my energy use data and to what degree. I want that Big Red Button to say “yes” or “no” to my very personal data being handed off. Not just a bill insert that I throw into recycling. Sure, the state data collectors have their reasons, many of which I support, but I have a shower curtain that I intend to continue to use.

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