by Paul Ciampoli
APPA News Director
Posted July 11, 2019
A law that went into effect in Florida at the start of July prevents third parties from gaining real-time access to public power customers’ usage information and meter-derived data.
Amy Zubaly, Executive Director, Florida Municipal Electric Association, recently provided additional details on the new law and the role that FMEA and its members played in the passage of H.B. 591, which was signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 14.
Public power focused on protecting customers
Zubaly noted that Florida has very broad public records laws –- government-in-the-sunshine. “Since public power utilities are a part of local government, much of our records – and much of our customers’ information – is also subject to public records laws,” Zubaly said.
Smart meters, “now nearly universally deployed in the utility industry, have provided customers and utilities with the ability to manage utility costs and usage in ways helpful to customers by providing real-time usage information.”
But this vast amount of newly available consumer-specific data also creates certain vulnerabilities, Zubaly pointed out. The detailed customer data can be used to specifically identify hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute usage patterns even down to the exact appliance in use.
“In the wrong hands, access to this information can be used to target customers by knowing when they are home or away to monitor usage patterns, creating privacy and security concerns. As public power utilities, protecting our customers from data mining, scams and unlawful activity is critically important,” Zubaly said.
For most utilities such information is private and not available to third parties. But utilities that are governmentally owned are subject to Florida’s open record laws, so this information must be released to anyone who asks for it, even if the requestor remains anonymous, Zubaly said.
The new law provides for a public records exemption for customer meter-derived data on a less than one billing cycle basis (billing cycles run from 28-31 days). Customer information beyond the current billing cycle would remain subject to public records laws.
Legislation was a top priority for FMEA, members
The legislation was a top priority for FMEA and its members, with Florida public power advocating the bill every step of the way,
“We successfully communicated the importance of protecting our customers privacy to state legislators and worked closely with Florida’s First Amendment Foundation to preserve the spirit of Florida’s government sunshine laws. The bill passed both chambers of the Florida Legislature without a single no vote,” Zubaly pointed out.
“On behalf of public power communities across the state, we commend Governor DeSantis, the Florida Legislature and the First Amendment Foundation for working with us to ensure all Florida utility customers’ real-time information is protected from potential misuse.”
When asked whether there are any similar laws or pieces of legislation affecting public power utilities in other states, Zubaly said that Florida has one of the broadest public records laws in the country, so this type of customer information is already exempt in many states.
Recent amendments to the Federal Freedom of Information Act, and states such as Arkansas and California, have provided disclosure exemptions for sensitive infrastructure information of public utility systems and its users, while balancing the right of the public to understand usage trends and variances, she said.
FMEA was also successful this session at advocating for the passage of a public meetings exemption bill, HB 327, that exempted from public records any portion of a meeting held by a local government utility where the issues of cybersecurity are discussed.
“FMEA hopes that the passage of this important legislation will help further protect municipal electric utilities and the public from the very real threat of cyber terrorism,” Zubaly said.
This law also went into effect on July 1.
FMEA represents the unified interests of 33 public power communities across Florida and provides its members with government relations, communications and education services.