With encryption of name and address - but disclosure of usage and billing - customers can have their cake and eat it too.
How to assure consumer privacy in energy deregulation has utilities, energy marketers and regulators in a dither.
With a deregulating market, utilities must share their consumer data with energy marketers in their territories. The more information energy marketers have about consumers, the better the products, prices and payment plans they can offer. This information, however, may include sensitive details about a consumer's finances and habits. Regulators have tried to strike a balance among conflicting interests - the consumer's right to privacy, the burden imposed on utilities to release customer information available, and the needs of marketers for real information to create viable offerings in a timely fashion.
The industry struggles to deal with this issue at a time when individual privacy has become a hot-button issue among consumers. When most people talk about privacy they usually mean one of three things:
* The right to control information about themselves,
* The right to have their own personal space, or
* The right to be left alone, both as consumers and individuals.
When individuals do consent to relinquish privacy, that consent should be meaningful - given voluntarily, without pressure and with full knowledge of the implications. Privacy has become an issue precisely because of the absence of meaningful consent in a large and growing number of consumer transactions.
By now consumers know that their every purchase becomes part of one or more massive databases that retailers compile and resell, apparently indiscriminately. These databases contain information on customer buying patterns and credit history. Consumers don't need more evidence of this trend; they see their privacy invaded almost daily by the inundation of junk mail and dinnertime telephone solicitations. But above all, they're alarmed by talk of sensitive medical records, including information on genetic predisposition to certain conditions, falling into the hands of insurance companies or prospective employers.
Understandably, consumers also are concerned about losing control of their privacy when they request that their utilities transfer their usage data to newcomer energy marketers. They fear these marketers may swamp them with calls or sell their names to other marketers. What's needed is a cost-effective, quick means of transferring sensitive data to energy marketers. Fortunately, the computer technology that feeds consumer fears about privacy control also provides a means of ensuring confidentiality.
Sign a Form? Too Slow, Too Costly
State public utilities commissions have tried to respond to these concerns about privacy and meaningful consent. They have set rules covering what consumer information is to be made available to the energy provider and what is to remain confidential until the consumer releases it. Some states still require that a utility get the consumer's "wet signature" - ink on a piece of paper - before it may transfer data to an energy marketer. Many have given consumers the option of adding their names to a "Don't Call Me" list. Others have prescribed a negative response mechanism: Unless the consumer returns a postcard restricting release