Regulators urged to probe ethics of Bell’s ‘data grab’

Provincial and federal regulators need to examine the ethics around the sort of wide-ranging data collection that Bell Canada intends to roll out next month, according to privacy and consumer advocates.

Under a new privacy policy, Bell’s information gathering activities in order to offer customers “relevant ads” will now include: Web pages visited from customer’s device or home Internet access; location; apps and device feature usage; TV viewing; and calling patterns.

Bell has given its customers up to November 16 to opt out of the program.

Bell may be acting within the law but its data collection campaign is not ethically sound, according to Philippe Viel, head of communications for Union des consommateurs (Consumers union) a Montreal-based consumer protection group.

“The only option to opt out offered is to not receive relevant ads,” he said in an interview with the national broadcast station CBC. “They’re going to collect the data anyway.”

He also said this type of monitoring is not currently done by other carriers and it sets a dangerous precedent. The government needs to look into the ethics of such a program immediately, he added.

Michael Geist, University of Ottawa e-commerce law professor and technology law expert called the program a “personal data grab.” He said Bell will also begin to use account data such as which products customers use, device types, payment patterns, language preferences, gender and age.

“The scope of Bell’s intended personal data usage is remarkable,” he said in his recent blog. “Given that many of its customers will have bundled Internet, wireless and television services, the company will be tracking everything: which Web sites they visit, what search terms they enter, what television shows they watch, what applications they use and what phone calls they make.”

He said all this data will be correlated with the user’s location, age, gender and more.

According to Geist, Bell intends to use the data in two ways:

  • For targeted advertising using detailed consumer profiles
  • Aggregate the data to sell to other businesses and marketing companies

In a statement to the CBC, Bell said it was giving customers an option.

“What’s new is that we’re giving Bell customers the option to receive Internet advertising that is relevant to them rather than the random online advertising they’re receiving now,” Bell said.

The number of ads that customers see “won’t increase and they can opt-out anytime”.

Geist, however believe that Bell is forcing customers that don’t like the program to opt-out and “making the default that that everybody gets monitored and tracked.”

“For law enforcement, Bell is effectively offering one of the most detailed profiling services in Canada, which the company can disclose without a court order as part of an investigation under Canadian privacy law,” Geist said.


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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