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Privacy watchdog keeps an eye on BC Hydro smart meters

Smart meters like these allow homeowners to track their energy use and configure their home's temperature and light settings.

J.P. Moczulski/J.P. Moczulski

British Columbia's Privacy Commissioner is quietly working with BC Hydro to ensure its new smart meter program protects the extensive amount of personal information that will be collected.

The $930-million program to replace electromechanical hydro meters with digital meters will enable BC Hydro to track energy usage on an hourly basis in almost every building in the province. BC Hydro is to begin installing the smart meters in July.

Similar metering programs have been adopted in Ontario and in several U.S. states. Public interest groups in Canada and the United States have raised concerns about whether the unprecedented collection of information on activities in a home - such as what electronic devices are used, what hours the house is empty, when vacations are taken - constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

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The public interest groups have also questioned how readily the information would be available to law enforcement agencies looking for marijuana grow operations, as well as divorce lawyers, marketing firms, insurance companies or criminals.

"All the things that could be measured to create a profile of electricity use can also create a snapshot of people's behaviour over time in certain areas," said Richard Rosenberg, the president of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. "The whole idea of creating profiles is troublesome. Why should they be able to measure and document your particular use of a facility over time?"

Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham and BC Hydro are "working co-operatively" to consider any possible impacts of the smart-meter program, Maria Dupuis, a spokesperson for the commissioner's office, said Thursday in an interview.

"It's the early days. They are examining [the smart-meter program]together as part of consultation process," Ms. Dupuis said, adding that the consultation started last August.

Gary Murphy, the chief project officer for BC Hydro's smart meter program, said Ms. Durham has been involved in discussions on information sharing and the architecture of the project.

She has also been interested in the privacy impact assessments undertaken by BC Hydro, he said in an interview. The utility is planning impact assessments of more than 100 parts of the program. "We have to ensure we have the right provisions in place to address whatever issues that may arise," Mr. Murphy said.

One of the impact assessments looked at how customers' privacy was protected when information from the meters is shared with the billing system. The assessment considered issues such as what information was being shared, who had access to it, what level of security was required to gain access and what information had to be kept confidential from various groups of people.

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"[Ms. Durham]has a very pro-active approach to privacy here in the province," Mr. Murphy said. "Her intention is to get involved in the front end of high-profile projects, as opposed to auditing privacy at the back end, and we are very supportive of that."

B.C. is following an approach called Privacy by Design, developed by Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, who has warned about the "unwelcome profiling of individuals" by digital technologies. Privacy by Design proposes limiting personal information to the portion of the digital network where it is relevant and provides specific design requirements for minimizing and protecting personal information.

B.C. is also hiring outside hackers to test the privacy provisions and security of the system. "That experience allows us to test the integrity of our solution and make sure we are secure," Mr. Murphy said. "As things are found, we continue to upgrade and put patches in places."

Although BC Hydro will have more information about individuals, Mr. Murphy said smart metering has "changed nothing" in relation to the utility's obligation under the privacy laws. He dismissed concerns about divorce lawyers or law enforcement agencies having better access to personal information after smart meters are installed.

He said the energy usage information complied by the new smart meters was not so transparent. "If you look at the data, it would be awfully hard to reconstruct someone's life," Mr. Murphy said.

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