04/07/2015 12:27 EDT | Updated 06/07/2015 05:59 EDT

Bell targeted ads plan slammed by privacy watchdog

Canada's privacy commissioner says Bell should have asked for express consent from its customers before beginning a data collection program that involves tracking their internet searches, app usage and TV watching habits so they can be sent targeted advertising.

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien issued a report Tuesday highlighting a "significant impact on privacy" from the Bell program, which began Nov. 16, 2014, and has drawn 170 complaints from consumers.

Bell's plan is to build detailed profiles of its customers by tracking their app usage, TV viewing, calling patterns and even GPS positions. They could then combine this information with account data to allow third parties to send ads to their customers.

Bell has so far refused to adhere to the privacy commissioner's request that it adopt an "opt-in" consent policy for the program, so that customers would be able to choose whether they want to have their data tracked.

Vast amounts of personal info

"Bell's ad program involves the use of vast amounts of its customers' personal information, some of it highly sensitive," Therrien said in a news release.

"Bell should not simply assume that, unless they proactively speak up to the contrary, customers are consenting to have their personal information used in this new way."

The telco not only puts the  onus on customers to "opt out" if they do not want their data tracked, it was also keeping profiles of customers who had opted out, hoping that in future it would be able to use the information, the privacy commissioner found.

Opting out involves clicking on a link at the bottom of the program's web page and following the prompts. Customers who do not take this step are automatically included in the program.

The privacy commissioner was able to get Bell to agree to stop keeping a database on customers who had opted out and to delete information it had on file.

'Stop passing on credit info'

Bell also agreed to:

- Include language in its contracts with advertisers to prevent them using cookies, device fingerprinting, other tracking methods and profile information to identify customers' personal information.

- Stop including credit score information in its customer profiles that go to advertisers.

- Use partial postal codes, instead of full postal codes, to deliver targeted ads.

- Not allow access to the data to The Source, a retail electronics store owned by Bell.

When Bell announced it would introduce the data collection program, Micheal Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Union, described the targeted-ad system as part of "a disturbing trend" by internet and telecom companies.

Google and Facebook are also taking steps to capitalize on data about the behaviour of their customers.

But companies such as Bell have unprecedented access to information, since they control wireless and telecom access, as well as TV and internet usage.