Paranoia to be taken seriously

I was amused and frustrated while in Auckland today, my rental car had a limited number of radio stations to choose from and so I was on a well known talk back radio station (not my normal choice but my favourite station was not selectable) and the topic was the Privacy Commissioners warning to Utilities about smart meters.

Earlier in the day the Privacy Commissioner had released a memo responding to complaints from the public about smart meters and the data they collect. The talk back host was waxing lyrical about the slippery slope to big brother and before you could say paranoia, callers quoting “facts” about physical harm, excessive bills and invasion of privacy were clogging the airwaves. Stuff published the memo contents under the title “Smart meters: power companies know when you are home” which is quite a different angle than taken by the Commissioner in his memo – but that’s the media for you.

My frustration comes from knowing that smart meters are a good thing, that they operate well inside health guidelines and that all data is treated as carefully as your banking information or mobile phone records.

Although there will always diverse opinions, I think the problem has been caused by the lack of communications from the Retailers and Metering companies to the homeowner. There is little understanding by homeowners about any benefit to them. Utilities have basically said “Trust us, this is good for you” and all the homeowner sees is their bill goes up (because of the increased accuracy); good for me? Yeah Right!

Most of the time homeowners are unaware that they even have a smart meter and to find out one has been installed does make them feel that something has happened on their private property without their permission.

Smart meter rollouts should be accompanied by significant customer engagement campaigns (not just a letter saying “we will be installing a new meter on your property on…”) showing the customer how they can use the new information available to them and how that will save them money.

A consumer doesn’t differentiate between mesh networks collecting data or Internet based online portal services, they just know that there is a big database of information somewhere. Like there is for their bank accounts showing what they like to purchase or there mobile phone account showing who they like to call, and for how long and if they have some smartphones, an actual record of everywhere they have been. Its important that the electricity industry shows that it takes data privacy seriously without using that as an excuse to limit information available to consumers and their appointed agents.

At Cortexo we take data privacy and security very seriously using the same level of access and communication security as most banks do. We have also met with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to understand what we could be doing better. Finally we are evaluating compliance with the NZ Cloud Computing Code of Conduct  which promotes transparency for consumers.

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