Seattle's New Utility Billing System Experiences Privacy Breakdown

The computer system, which launched Sept. 5, experienced a glitch that let utility customers see others' bills.

by Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times / September 6, 2016
A middle class neighborhood in Seattle, where some utility customers clicked an online link to their electronic-payment option, and may have seen images of other customers’ bills in .pdf form. (FlickrCC/Wonderlane)

(TNS) -- Seattle’s new billing system for utilities, already afflicted by delays and cost overruns, launched Monday morning with a data flaw that sent 3,041 customers a link to other customers’ bills, including their names, addresses and energy or water use.

Along with the privacy breakdown, the city sent six to 12 redundant email notices to those same customers, marking new trouble for a computer update, nearly a year late, $34 million over budget, and expected to reach $100 million.

The problems showed up in about one-tenth of the initial batch of 30,000 utility bills compiled during the changeover Sunday night and sent Monday morning, City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen said Monday night.

It’s likely that far fewer than 3,000 people inadvertently saw other people’s bills, because the city disabled the online billing link at 10:30 a.m., after a customer called to report the mistake, he said.

The Monday morning batch of 30,000 bills includes thousands of postal mail bills that weren’t affected, as well as electronic bills that worked properly. Some were City Light bills, others Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) water, sewer and garbage bills.

If customers clicked an online link to the electronic-payment option, they may have seen images of other customers’ bills in .pdf form, Thomsen said.

That would have displayed other people’s names, addresses, energy use and billing amounts, as well as any discounts they receive, or any solar-energy generation.

At no time were bank-account numbers, credit-card numbers, Social Security numbers or similar financial data exposed, he said.

E-billing customers who didn’t click the online payment link, but whose payments are still deducted automatically, received redundant but accurate emails, Thomsen said.

Both the e-billing link and the automatic payments for the new bills were disabled, while technicians worked Monday night. They would continue as long as needed to fix the flaw, Thomsen said. Electronic payment has been restored for people who were billed before the weekend.

He said 735 customers who use automatic billing received 12 email notices, and 2,306 others who pay their bills online got six email notices.

An investigation continues, but Thomsen said “there was an error on what we sent to KUBRA,” the city’s third-party billing company. The new system worked properly during final validation tests, he said.

On the other hand, the city had to integrate some 40 information-technology applications, affecting 420,000 customers, most of whom are served by both City Light and SPU.

“This appears to be a data issue of some sort that we need to sort out,” Thomsen said. “We did anticipate with any new system, there’s the potential for problems like this to crop up, so this is the one that we have. We’re trying to address it as quickly as we can.

“We take anything that deals with a customer’s bill seriously and we’re working diligently to resolve this.”

The Customer Care Information System, created by Oracle with involvement by city staff and PricewaterhouseCoopers, was to launch in October 2015, but changes in the project’s scope led the City Council in November to approve a revised budget. The changes were related to identity protection for customers, regulatory requirements and testing.

Monday’s e-billing errors create an early customer-relations headache for Larry Weis, the new general manager hired this year from Austin, Texas. In a statement this spring, he stressed the need to prepare methodically, taking as much time as needed, to avoid the kind of hasty startup that cost Los Angeles $181 million due to billing errors.

The city had already planned to add 10 to 15 call-center staffers Tuesday morning just to deal with ordinary transition issues, Thomsen said City Light will send updates to the 3,041 affected customers, and he urged them not to flood the call center.

Instead, the city plans to publish an announcement and “frequently asked questions,” sometime Tuesday morning at www.seattle.gov/light.

©2016 The Seattle Time. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.