10/22/2013 08:31 EDT | Updated 10/22/2013 09:00 EDT

Bell Canada To Track Web, TV Surfing Habits For Ad Purposes


Bell Canada plans to track customers’ web, TV viewing and calling habits in order to serve them customized ads, the company has announced on its website.

In a statement on its privacy page, the company that provides TV, Internet and phone and mobile services said as of November 16, “Bell will begin using certain information about your account and network usage for select purposes” such as improving network performance, fraud detection, and serving ads that are “more relevant to you.”

The things Bell will track include TV viewing, calling patterns, mobile app usage, the subscriber’s location and his or her web surfing history.

"The scope of Bell's intended personal data usage is remarkable," tech law expert Michael Geist wrote on his blog. "Given that many of its customers will have bundled Internet, wireless, and television services, the company will be tracking everything: which websites they visit, what search terms they enter, what television shows they watch, what applications they use, and what phone calls they make. All of that data will be correlated with their location, age, gender, and more."

“What’s new is that we’re giving Bell customers the option to receive internet advertising that’s relevant to them rather than the random online advertising they’re receiving now,” a Bell Canada spokesperson said in a brief email to Huffington Post.

The spokesperson said Bell customers who don’t want to see the targeted ads can opt out by visiting this page.

It’s unclear whether the privacy policy will apply to customers of Virgin Mobile, a Bell brand. As of press time, Bell had not responded to questions about where these ads appear.

But some commenters on the social site Reddit objected to the idea that they should be forced to view any advertising — targeted or otherwise — as part of a service for which they pay.

I pay for my services with Bell. Ads are not okay,” Redditor RambleMan wrote. “I do not pay for Facebook, Google, so ads are a fact of life.”

Bell says it won’t give away personal information to other companies, but reserves the right to use aggregate data to create reports it will share with business partners. For example, “we may generate a report that shows 5,000 mobile users downloaded a gaming application in a month, and 80 per cent of them were 18–25 years old.”

As internet monitoring tools become more sophisticated, ad sellers are increasingly turning to targeted advertising as a way of creating more effective marketing campaigns.

Other wireless companies are getting in on the act. Rogers Communications has rolled out a feature called Rogers Alerts that uses geo-location technology in cellphones to send customized text messages about preferred brands. However, unlike Bell’s opt-out system, Rogers’ is an opt-in system — customers will only get the messages if they sign up for the service.

Geist says Bell's targeted advertising should also be made an opt-in plan.

"Bell is effectively offering one of the most detailed profiling services in Canada, which the company can disclose without a court order as part of an investigation under Canadian privacy law," Geist wrote. "The company should commit to requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before it discloses consumer profiles based on this monitoring activity."

In the U.S., telecom providers like Verizon have been criticized for what some consumers’ advocates say is excessive invasion of privacy for the purposes of advertising — and for serving ads to paying customers in the first place.

They used to say, ‘If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.’ But now you can be paying $80 a month for it, and still be the product,” writes Kashmir Hill at Forbes.

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