Privacy Commissioner Says Bell’s Customer Surveillance Program Crosses the Line

Canada’s privacy commissioner says Bell’s plan to tone-down a controversial customer-tracking program still doesn’t go far enough.

At issue is Bell’s plan to create detailed profiles of their customers based on “app usage, location, web pages visited, TV viewing, calling patterns and other information.” Those profiles are then sold to advertisers.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner says the plan is illegal and launched an investigation after receiving what it describes as an “unprecedented” number of complaints.

“Bell’s ad program involves the use of vast amounts of its customers’ personal information, some of it highly sensitive,” privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said in a press release issued on April 7.

The federal watchdog’s investigation revealed just how sensitive some of that information is. According to the press release:

“Bell is able to track every website its customers visit, every app they use, every TV show they watch and every call they make using Bell’s network. When that information is combined with account and demographic information –  such as age range, gender, average revenue per user, preferred language and postal code – which the company has long collected, the end result is a rich multi-dimensional profile that most people are likely to consider highly sensitive.”

Currently the program only applies to wireless customers, however the company wants to “expand it to television, internet and home phone customers in the future,” according to The Globe and Mail.

Bell agreed to several of the privacy commissioners demands earlier in the week – abandoning plans to include credit scores in the tracking program and promising to take steps to ensure that advertisers participating in the program wouldn’t to use the information they receive to directly identify users.

But a sticking point remained: Bell wanted the program to be opt-out, while the privacy commissioner instated it had to be opt-in.

“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,” Therrien said, warning that if Bell didn’t comply his office might take legal action.

While Bell reversed its position – promising that the program would be opt-in – later that day, after meeting between Therrien and Bell representatives on April 8, the commissioner’s office say the new plan still isn’t satisfactory.

“Suffice it to say that it would be premature to say that we have arrived at a solution on the issue of opt-in,” Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the commissioner told the Canadian Press. And saying the option of pursing legal action is still on the table.

Bell has called on the privacy commissioner to investigate other companies, including Google and Facebook, which it says have similar practices.

“This is not something exclusive to Bell,” Therrien said in the release. “We will be reaching out to other organizations that are engaged in or considering this type of activity, including the wider telecommunications sector, as we believe others could benefit from our findings in this investigation.”

However, Therrien told The Globe and Mail that he doesn’t know of any other Canadian telecoms with similar plans.