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Bell planning to use customers' data to target ads

Bell store at Rideau Centre in Ottawa Aug. 12, 2010.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Bell Canada is planning to use information about its customers' accounts and Internet use to target ads to them.

The company has begun sending out notices to its customers advising them that, starting Nov. 16, it is changing the way it uses some of their information, including to deliver "product offers through new business and marketing reports, [and] making some of the ads and marketing partner offers you see more relevant to you," unless customers choose to opt out.

Bell says the information will also be used to improve service and heighten protection against fraud.

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The notice specifies that Bell will not share information that will personally identify any customers "outside of Bell Canada and its affiliates."

The information Bell will be using includes Internet activity from both mobile devices and computers, including Web pages customers have visited and search terms they have entered; customers' location; use of apps and other device features; television viewing habits; and "calling patterns." Account information shared will include product use including type of device, payment patterns, language preferences, postal codes, and demographic information.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said that they will examine the changes to Bell's use of information to ensure they comply with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). The office has issued privacy guidelines for online behavioural advertising and for opt-out consent.

"Our Office has received several complaints today with respect to the statement Bell has issued about customer profiling, online behavioural marketing and personal information," spokesperson Scott Hutchinson said in an email. "We will be investigating."

Advertisers already track people's online behaviour, usually through cookies planted in a Web browser that allows them to follow people around the Internet and deliver ads to those people based on their behaviour. What Bell is proposing is to go further, using the information about how its customers use their TV, phone and Internet services to better target messages to them.

"What's new is that we're giving Bell customers the option to receive Internet advertising that's relevant to them rather than the random online advertising they're receiving now," spokesperson Paolo Pasquini said in an e-mail. "The number of ads customers see won't increase and they can opt-out anytime by visiting"

Bell provided examples of how the information could be used, such as allowing an hotel to target mobile ads to users who are using their mobile devices in a city where they do not live. It may also generate reports for marketing purposes, such as mobile activity in a given location or demographic information about the people who use a certain mobile application or about the mobile activity at an event.

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