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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tim Hortons coffee shops, as of March 17, will no longer be allowing people to sit down in their restaurants. Takeout and drive through will be the only options for customers. The Tim Hortons at Adelaide St. West and Sheppard St., in downtown Toronto, , is photographed on Mar 16 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s federal privacy watchdog is teaming up with provincial counterparts to investigate Tim Hortons’ use of data, following a report on how its mobile app tracked users’ movements – in some cases in the middle of the night, or when they were nowhere near a Tim Hortons.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada announced the investigation into Tim Hortons’ use of customer data on Monday. It is launching the probe after the National Post published an article detailing how the Tim Hortons app logged the movements of one user’s location – even when the app was not in use – after the reporter made a request for his own data under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

The investigation will examine whether the fast-food chain obtained "meaningful consent" to track geolocation data through its mobile app, and whether that data location was "appropriate." The probe will occur in conjunction with provincial privacy authorities in B.C., Alberta and Quebec.

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“The federal Privacy Commissioner’s office considers this to be an issue of great importance to Canadians given the privacy issues it raises,” the Privacy Commissioner’s office said in a statement. “Geolocation data can be very sensitive as it can reveal information about the habits and activities of individuals, for example, medical visits or places that they regularly frequent.”

The investigation raises questions with significant implications for other companies that track location data through apps – a common practice. Some tracking is necessary for an application’s functioning, such as to route an Uber or Lyft driver to a user’s door, or to process a breakfast order at the nearest coffee shop. But a significant amount of location-based data is collected for marketing purposes: to help companies build profiles of their customers’ habits and preferences, and to allow them to send more personalized ads to those customers.

For this reason, many apps encourage users to opt-in to allow location tracking at all times. McDonald's Canada's app has an option for location-tracking "while using the app" or "always," for example, and the Starbucks Canada app tracks GPS data and encourages users who want to disable location-tracking to do so through their device settings.

Tim Hortons' parent company, Toronto-based Restaurant Brands partners with Radar Labs, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company , which provides location-based data analytics, and helps the Tims app to identify when users are near competing fast-food restaurants and coffee shops. The Post story showed that the app also appeared to identify the reporter's home and office, and tracked him while on vacations. It also continued tracking his movements during an eight-day period when he had turned off the app's location permissions, according to the article.

Restaurant Brands has said that its app only uses location data with permission, but also acknowledged that its own information to customers saying that it tracks their location only when the app was open, was misleading. The company has since changed the wording of that information.

The Tims app recently stopped gathering location information at all times, RBI chief corporate officer Duncan Fulton said in a statement Monday. Mr. Fulton said that even if guests have enabled the "always" option for location-sharing, it will now only collect data when the app is in use.

“We will fully cooperate with the Canadian privacy regulatory authorities and we are confident we’ll be able to resolve this matter,” Mr. Fulton said in the statement.

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Restaurant Brands has been working on expanding its digital reach, revamping the popular "Roll Up the Rim to Win" contest to offer more digital prizes and encourage Tim Hortons customers to download the app and register for its loyalty program.

“A year ago we didn’t really have a loyalty program at Tims, and a year later, you’ve got 9-million people using it, and almost half of those registered allow us to contact with personalized offers,” RBI chief corporate officer Duncan Fulton said in an interview with the Globe and Mail in May. “That’s an unprecedented digital ramp up for any brand in the country ... it’s a very long-term payoff.”

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