February 28, 2007

No Privacy at Public Utilities?

by PG

When I heard the story yesterday about the Gore family's high use of energy at the Nashville house where Al and Tipper work, the only part that really surprised me was that the conservative group that publicized the Gores' utility bills had been able to obtain that information. Getting monetary information with names attached, instead of anonymized aggregates, is generally rather difficult outside the area of political donations and spending. I can see why transparent elections are sufficiently desirable that the privacy of donors is outweighed, but I'm not immediately understanding the public interest that justifies pulling individuals' utility bills. Utilities are a mix of public and private, but that doesn't make them subject to identifying FOIA requests; the IRS is a wholly public agency, and I can't just ask them to give me my Corporations prof's tax data.

Maybe someone in the Gore household is burning a lot of energy on criminal activity, like heat lamps for pot plants, or on legal activity that simply would be very embarrassing to disclose, like a plug-in vibrator. Maybe a random one-month bump in gas expenditure was due to the week when someone in the Gore home was trying to pull a Sylvia Plath. I am of course exaggerating the speculation one could sensibly make of a utility bill, but until I hear a reason why Consolidated Edison should be able to disclose my bills without my permission, I'm not going to look kindly upon such an intrusion. Had the Tennessee Center for Policy Research asked Gore to disclose the information himself, I would have thought him a real punk if he'd refused, but the Center's ability to obtain it without notice or consent troubles me.

Discerning exactly how they got it is a bit difficult: one news report says, "Johnson said his group got its figures from Nashville Electric Service. But company spokeswoman Laurie Parker said the utility never got a request from the policy center and never gave it any information"; another initially said, "This information is based on electrical consumption reports from Nashville Electric Service, which are public record" but subsequently was changed.

(I do love the headline here that refers to Gore's defense that his carbon credits balance out his expenditures to make him energy-neutral: "GORE: But He Bought An Indulgence At The Church Of Native Energy, So It's All Good.")

February 28, 2007 04:43 PM | TrackBack
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