10/23/2013 04:20 EDT

Privacy Commissioner To Probe Bell Canada's Tracking Of Customers


Canada’s privacy commissioner is planning to investigate Bell Canada over its plan to track customers’ internet, TV and calling habits.

The news comes as Bell, Canada’s largest telecom firm, defended the changes to its privacy policy, saying the targeted advertising the changes will make possible is something consumers want.

Scott Hutchinson, a spokesperson for federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, told the CBC his office had received several complaints about the new policy and will be investigating.

Bell Canada recently issued a notice on its website announcing that, as of Nov. 16, it will be collecting the internet surfing, TV watching and phone habits of its customers in order to serve up “targeted ads.”

The company will also track customers’ app usage, location and demographics. Aside from targeted ads, the data will be used to create reports for Bell’s business partners, which will feature only aggregate information. Bell says it will not share private information with other companies.

According to Bell, the policy will only apply to wireless customers at first, but will be expanded to include TV and internet customers as well. It will also apply to subscribers of Bell’s discount brand, Virgin Mobile.

Bell says customers who do not want the targeted ads can opt out of the ads by visiting this page. But as some consumers’ advocates have pointed out, that will only prevent Bell customers from seeing the customized ads.

“The only option to opt out offered is to not receive relevant ads. They’re going to collect the data anyway,” said Philippe Viel of the consumer advocacy group Union des consommateurs.

Though the company has been largely tight-lipped about its plans, Bell Mobility President Wade Oosterman told the National Post the tracking initiative is “completely on side” with any guidelines published by the privacy commissioner.

We’re actually doing something that consumers generally are in favour of and want,” Oosterman said. “We view it as a positive, value-added service for our subscribers.”

If the public was truly happy with the plan for expansive monitoring, tracking, and profiling, the company could have easily adopted an opt-in model, allowing customers to choose to be tracked,” tech law expert Michael Geist blogged.

“Instead, its approach forces nearly eight million Canadians to opt-out of the monitoring practices, which the company surely knows will only happen in a tiny fraction of cases due to a lack of awareness and appreciation for the consequences of the profiling.”

Ontario’s privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, told the Post that this sort of tracking “unfortunately seems to be becoming an industry practice.”

Unlike the federal privacy commissioner, Cavoukian’s office can’t investigate private companies, but she says customers ought to speak up if they object to the policy.

“If enough customers object to this, believe me, companies will start changing their practices,” she said.

Also on HuffPost

Photo gallery Canada's 10 Most Attractive Employers 2013 See Gallery