Lawsuit accuses utility of spying on customers, giving private data to cops

The power supplier in the Sacramento, California, the area is being accused in a new federal lawsuit of spying on customers and then turning over confidential information to police officers.

The case against the Sacramento Municipal Utility District is being pursued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in Sacramento County Superior Court.

The lawsuit charges that the utility’s bulk disclosure of customer utility data “turns its entire customer base into potential leads for police to chase…”

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The plaintiffs include the Asian American Liberation Network, a Sacramento-based nonprofit, and Khurshid Khoja, an Asian American Sacramento resident, SMUD customer, cannabis industry attorney, and cannabis rights advocate.

“SMUD’s policies claim that ‘privacy is fundamental’ and that it ‘strictly enforces privacy safeguards,’ but in reality, its standard practice has been to hand over its extensive trove of customer data whenever police request it,” reported Saira Hussain, a lawyer for the group.

“Doing so violates utility customers’ privacy rights under state law and the California Constitution while disproportionately subjecting Asian and Asian American communities to police scrutiny,” Hussain charged.

The state’s Public Utilities Code states that utilities “shall not share, disclose, or otherwise make accessible to any third party a customer’s electrical consumption data ….” except “as required under federal or state law.”

While state law bans utilities from giving out consumer data, “SMUD in recent years has given protected customer data to the Sacramento Police Department, who asked for it on an ongoing basis—without a warrant or any other court order, nor any suspicion of a particular resident—to find possible illicit cannabis grows. The program has been highly lucrative for the city: Sacramento Police in 2017 began issuing large penalties to owners of properties where cannabis is found under a new city ordinance, and levied nearly $100 million in fines in just two years.”

“SMUD and the Sacramento Police Department’s mass surveillance program is unlawful, advances harmful stereotypes, and overwhelmingly impacts Asian communities,” said Megan Sapigao, of the Asian American Liberation Network. “It’s unacceptable that two public agencies would carelessly flout state law and utility customers’ privacy rights, and even more unacceptable that they targeted a specific community in doing so.”

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