Canada’s largest telecommunications group is getting mixed reviews for its plan to follow the lead of companies like Google and Facebook in collecting massive amounts of information about the activities and preferences of its customers.
Bell Canada began asking its customers in December for permission to track everything they do with their home and mobile phones, internet, television, apps or any other services they get through Bell or its affiliates.
In return, Bell says it will provide advertising and promotions that are more “tailored” to their needs and preferences.
“Tailored marketing means Bell will be able to customize advertising based on participant account information and service usage patterns, similar to the ways that companies like Google and others have been doing for some time,” the company says in recent notices to customers.
If given permission, Bell will collect information about its customers’ age, gender, billing addresses, and the specific tablet, television or other devices used to access Bell services.
It will also collect the “number of messages sent and received, voice minutes, user data consumption and type of connectivity when downloading or streaming.”
“Bell’s marketing partners will not receive the personal information of program participants; we just deliver the offers relevant to the program participants on their behalf,” the company assures customers.
Teresa Scassa, who teaches law at the University of Ottawa and holds the Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy, says Bell has done a good job of explaining what it wants to do.
But Scassa says Bell customers who opt into Bell’s new program could be giving away commercially valuable personal information with little to no compensation for increased risks to their privacy and security.
“Here’s a company that’s taking every shred of personal information about me, from all kinds of activities that I engage in, and they’re monetizing it. What do I get in return? Better ads? Really? That’s it? What about better prices?”
Toronto-based consultant Charlie Wilton, whose firm has advised Bell and Rogers in the past, says there’s “tonnes” of evidence that consumers are increasingly aware of how valuable their personal information can be.
“I mean, in a perfect world, they would give you discounts or they would give you points or things that consumers would more tangibly want, rather than just the elimination of a pain point — which is what they’re offering right now,” Wilton says.
Scassa says there are also privacy and security concerns to consider.
At the macro level, Bell’s data security could be breached by hackers. At the micro level, she adds, there’s the potential for family friction if everybody starts getting ads based on one person’s activities.
Ads for pornography, birth control or services for victims of abuse could trigger confrontations, for instance.
“Some families are open and sharing. Others are fraught with tension and violence,” Scassa says.
Wilton says a company in Bell’s position also runs the risk that customers will feel betrayed if their information is leaked or the advertising they receive is inappropriate.
In the age of social media, he says, “one leak or one transgression gets amplified a million times.”
For its part, Bell spokesman Nathan Gibson notes in an email that its customers aren’t required to opt into its new marketing program and they can opt out later by adjusting their instructions to the company.
“Bell is responsible for delivering the advertising we believe would be most relevant to customers who opt in to the program, rather than the random online ads they would receive otherwise,” Gibson says.
Gibson noted that “international competitors like Google or Facebook, who deliver targeted marketing services in this country, are not subject to the rules that we as a Canadian company must and do follow.”
A spokeswoman for the federal privacy commissioner says that it hasn’t received any complaints about Bell’s new program.
However, Tobi Cohen noted that Bell withdrew and replaced its earlier Relevant Ads Program for its mobile service after the commission concluded in 2015 that dissatisfied consumers shouldn’t be required to take the initiative to opt out.
“Following further consultations and discussions with our office, Bell did make improvements and relaunched the program with opt-in consent in 2016,” Cohen says.
She added that the privacy commission hasn’t scrutinized the new “tailored” marketing program but added that the federal privacy law governing private-sector organizations has numerous requirements.
Among other things, organizations “need to explain what risks of harm may come to the individual from the collection, use or disclosure of the various information.”