Bell targeted ad issue remains unresolved: Privacy commissioner

Despite Bell Canada’s assurance that it will seek customer consent before tracking mobile phone use for the purpose of targeted online advertising, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) is keeping its options open. Those options include bringing the matter to Federal court, according to a spokesperson for the OPC.

The federal agency earlier slammed Bell for its targeted advertising program which the OPC said had a “significant impact on privacy.”

Bell’s “Relevant Advertising Program” involves tracking the Internet browsing habits of customers, along with their app usage, TV viewing and calling patterns. By combining this information with demographic and account data already collected from customers, Bell can create highly detailed profiles that enable third parties to deliver targeted ads to Bell’s customers.

The program involves combining customer information from several Bell affiliates that offer a range of mobile, home phone, Internet and TV services.

The OPC said the program sparked an “unprecedented 170 privacy complaints” under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

“Bell’s ad program involves the use of vast amounts of its customers’ personal information, some of it highly sensitive,” Daniel Therrien, privacy commissioner of Canada said. “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.”

On Tuesday, Therrien said Bell has agreed to make a number of changes to address privacy concerns raised during the investigation, but it has so far refused to implement a key recommendation to obtain express consent from customers.

In an email to the Canadian Press later that day, Bell said it will accept the commissioner’s recommendation to obtain explicit consent or opt-in from customers before using their private viewing patterns and sensitive personal information to create customer profiles which Bell sells to advertisers.

On Wednesday, the OPC had another meeting with Bell officials.

Tobi Cohen, spokeswoman to the privacy commissioner, told the Canadian Press that talks between Bell and the OPC are still going on.

“Suffice it to say that it would be premature to say that we have arrived at a solution on the issue of opt-in,” she said. Among the options of the commissioner is to take the matter to Federal court “if a solution cannot be reached to our satisfaction.”

Bell’s targeted advertising program began in 2013. Citing privacy concerns, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Consumers’ Association of Canada to a file a challenge with the Commission of Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

“There is no question that what Bell is doing, and how Bell is doing it, is inappropriate and today’s findings recognize that,” said John Lawford, executive director of PIAC. “We look forward to the CRTC’s decision on our complaint, and are optimistic that the CRTC will impose further constraints on telcos looking to try to monetize the confidential information they collect from their customers as they communicate through the network.”

In an interview with yesterday, Lawford said he is pleased Bell will abide by the opt-in requirement, as long as any data that was collected before this date with only implicit consent is excluded from the program.

“Saying you won’t do it in the future doesn’t really solve the problem,” he said.

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Nestor E. Arellano
Nestor E. Arellano
Toronto-based journalist specializing in technology and business news. Blogs and tweets on the latest tech trends and gadgets.

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