01/27/2014 02:31 EST | Updated 01/27/2014 05:59 EST

Bell's Tracking Of Customers Is 'Wrong,' Consumer Groups Say


Consumer rights groups are petitioning the federal telecommunications watchdog to stop Bell Canada from using its customer data to send them targeted advertising and marketing.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Consumers’ Association of Canada filed an application Monday with the CRTC that challenges Bell Canada’s collection and disclosure practices.

The groups argue that Bell is overstepping its role as a telecommunications company by incorporating customer data-driven advertising into their business model. The move violates protection of privacy clauses in the Telecommunications Act, the groups say. They want the CRTC to strike it down, or at least to rule that it must be an "opt-in" program.

“Canadians have every right to be concerned about their personal privacy when the company they pay for telephone, wireless, internet and TV service begins tracking and using information about them in this way,” said John Lawford, PIAC’s Executive Director and General Counsel.

The company announced last October that it would begin to collect a range of information including location, age, gender, browsing history, TV viewing and calling habits to deliver ads to its Bell Mobility customers based on their patterns. It has claimed the changes are something customers want, saying they provide customers with advertising that is relevant to them rather than the random ads they had been receiving.

Story continues below

Photo gallery The 5 Cellphone Companies Canadians Like The Least See Gallery

“The relevant advertising program is fully compliant with federal privacy guidelines, the Telecommunications Act and all applicable CRTC regulations," a spokeswoman said Monday.

She said Bell customers who don’t want to see the targeted ads can opt out. But that doesn’t preclude the company from collecting the data in the first place.

Bruce Cran, president of CAC, said that Bell is trying to ‘double-dip’ by selling information based on the use of services customers have paid for.

“It’s inappropriate – and asking that Canadians ‘opt out’ of this program they never asked for is wrong.”

Bell has said 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.

The announcement has also raised concerns among regulators, politicians and academics.

The office of Canada’s privacy commissioner has said it plans to investigate Bell’s practice. Last month, Conservative Senator Leo Housakos said he will call for hearings into the company’s consumer tracking.

Rogers Communications launched an optional location-based mobile marketing service around the same time as Bell. But, unlike its rival, it allows customers to choose whether to sign up for text alerts from Rogers and other retailers, rather than requiring them to opt out.

Location-based marketing has been around in the U.S. and Britain for years, but the concept is slowly trickling into Canada, where a number of companies are getting into the space with the aim of eventually allowing retailers to track how long a shopper is in a store, what they look at and what they purchased — a prospect that is sure to raise the ire of privacy advocates.

This story has been updated to include comment from Bell.