10/30/2013 17:43 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Bell data collection part of ‘disturbing trend’

Bell Canada’s recently announced plan to collect and analyze data from millions of customers is prompting public complaints, warnings from privacy advocates and has caught the attention of both the federal privacy commissioner and the CRTC.

The ability of multibillion-dollar internet behemoths like Facebook and Google to capitalize on users’ information by offering so-called “targeted ads” to marketers has been crucial to their success.

But critics say the idea of a telecommunications firm such as Bell – which is at once an internet service provider, cable TV provider and phone carrier to many of its customers – implementing a similar scheme is part of a trend that will have serious implications for how Canadians’ personal information is used.

The telecom giant’s plan “is almost unprecedented” in terms of the amount of information it will be able to collect, said Micheal Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Union. She described the targeted-ad system as part of “a disturbing trend” toward companies seeking to capitalize on data about how their customers behave.

Bell, which boasts close to eight million wireless subscribers, has said that on Nov. 16 it will begin compiling and analyzing GPS location information, which websites customers visit, the apps they use, what they search for online, the TV programs they watch, and their “calling patterns.”

“One thing I’m hearing a lot is the anger that people are already paying for this service. And on top of that they’re going to be sort of spying on you, collecting private and intimate data on you…. It’s like the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said David Christopher, communications co-ordinator with the non-profit advocacy group, which has received dozens of complaints about Bell’s announcement.

“Often people use the internet for quite personal or very private stuff. For things like holding medical consultations online, what banks people use, whether they use a dating website even,” he added. “They’ve a reasonable expectation this usage would be private, that it’s not all going to be tracked, stored and advertised back at them.”

‘Fully compliant’ with privacy laws?

Bell has said that information collected under the program will be “audience-based” and that individual customer information won't be released to advertisers.

CBC News requested more information from the company about how it will protect individual customers from being identified, and whether there is an option to opt out of both being tracked by Bell and of receiving the targeted ads.

“We’re looking to make online advertising that mobile customers already see more relevant to them. No customer is required to participate – you can opt out at any time,” a company spokesman said in an emailed response.

“Like any wireless carrier, Bell tracks customer usage information for practical purposes – network optimization and expansion, new services, billing purposes, and other business reasons,” the statement said. “But we never share this information externally. We’re committed to protecting customer privacy, and this initiative is fully compliant with Canadian privacy regulations.”

However, the federal privacy commissioner’s office plans to investigate whether the Bell scheme meets federal rules governing how private companies handle customer information.

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said Bell’s targeted ad system could also raise concerns at the CRTC. Its regulatory policies direct internet service providers not to use personal information “collected for the purposes of traffic management” for any other reason, and directs them not to disclose personal customer details.

A spokesperson for the CRTC said in an email to CBC News that the agency is “aware of the situation and looking into it.”

‘The big-data sell’

Bell isn’t the only Canadian company to cause a stir recently over online privacy.

RBC had to assuage customer complaints last month after the company’s new banking app prompted users with Android smartphones for permission to access information about their location, their contacts and call log.

Aeroplan has also notified customers that starting on Jan. 1, 2014, clients who use its credit cards will be forced to disclose all financial transactions made with them.

Adi Kamdar, an activist at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it’s not surprising that telecoms like Bell are taking steps toward tracking customer information for marketing purposes, given that it’s already a common practice for many social-media enterprises like Twitter.

“The issue though, is who these companies are partnering with,” he said, because once customer details are offered up to outside firms, “you don’t necessarily know how they’re using the data.”

Kamdar pointed to a breed of businesses known as “data brokers” that aggregate customer information, including personal details, from a range of sources and resell it to clients in the private and public sectors. One of the largest of these companies, Acxiom, has so far compiled about 1,500 “data points” on half a billion people around the world, according to The New York Times.

Others worry that increasingly detailed customer information will be accessible to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

In the case of Bell, its website advises customers that their information can be shared without their knowledge or consent. The sharing could arise in the course of an investigation “of a breach of an agreement or the breaking of provincial or federal laws,” or if the company is “asked to comply with a subpoena, warrant, court order or other lawful request.”

Laws too weak, advocates say

Despite the privacy issues that are cropping up as more companies move to track and commercialize customer data, several privacy advocates contacted by CBC News raised concerns that Canadian law is ill equipped to handle them.

Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer at the University of Ottawa’s Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic, said lawsuits against privacy violations have met with “limited success” in Canada compared to the United States.

He also noted that the privacy commissioner in Ottawa lacks the ability to obtain binding orders or the power to impose financial penalties for non-compliance, unlike the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

But if Bell’s plan becomes a reality then other Canadian telecoms are likely to follow suit, said Vonn, of the B.C. Civil Liberties Union.

“The big-data sell here is absolutely massive,” she said. “If you’re not analyzing your customer data, you’re missing out.”