When you check your e-mail, your e-mail may also be checking in on you.
Earlier this year, customers of Rogers Communications Inc. who use its Rogers e-mail service received notices about changes to the terms of service for its Web mail, which is managed by Yahoo, and told they would have to agree to the terms to keep using the Web mail.
The new terms included a notice that Yahoo "identifies words, links, people and subjects from your e-mail messages and other messages that are archived (including instant messages and SMS messages) to learn what matters to you so that Yahoo can, among other things, deliver new Yahoo Mail product features such as a smarter and more customized inbox and more relevant advertisements." Yahoo rolled out these changes for users of their main e-mail product as well.
It's the kind of practice that has occurred for some years now; users of Google Inc.'s Gmail service, for example, are accustomed to seeing ads alongside their e-mails with subjects related to their work, their entertainment habits, or other keywords that pop up in their messages.
But the changes concerned at least one Rogers mail user.
Jim Steinhart, a semi-retired travel journalist and photographer in Toronto, believes the new terms ask him to give up too much control over his personal information. While Yahoo allows users to opt out of this ad targeting, it still has software monitoring messages for malware, for example – but it is the wording "among other things" that troubles him most.
"The problem is, they could use personal information … for any purpose in the future," he said. "It's quite open-ended."
Mr. Steinhart is one of many consumers who are concerned about their privacy, in the face of an advertising industry more keen to speak to them directly, based on their personal needs, habits and other information. Advertisers have better technology to gather that information than ever before.
Advertisers have been watching how people navigate the Web, through cookies planted in a browser, for some time. They use that behaviour to deliver what they say are more "relevant" ads.
A self-regulating group in Canada has joined a global effort to encourage advertisers to disclose when their ads are the result of this kind of tracking, and to inform people about how to opt out.
When it comes to targeting based on e-mail, companies remind consumers that this advertising is why highly convenient services can be offered for free. And critics of those raising alarms about privacy point out that for services such as Google and Yahoo, humans do not read the e-mails and customers are not personally identified. But mounting privacy concerns have been fodder for competitors.
Earlier this year, Microsoft Corp. released another in a series of attack ads against Google, this time focusing on Gmail ad tracking. The ad's clunky dialogue notwithstanding, the marketing strategy was that consumers might not be aware of how their information is used, and might be worried enough about e-mail privacy to switch providers.
Microsoft's Outlook e-mail service delivers "personalized ads" based on a user's Web activity, tracked through cookies.
Rogers says it has not heard from other customers about the new terms of service, according to Ken Engelhart, vice-president of regulatory affairs. This could be because others are not troubled, or because a common consumer habit is to click "agree" on various digital terms of service without reading the fine print.
"[The information is] just used for ad serving, and if you're opting out of ad serving, the information is not being retained or stored anywhere," Mr. Engelhart said. "...The idea is [to deliver] ads, from the customers' perspective, that are more relevant. If you are a 58-year-old middle-aged man, you don't want a lot of ads being served to you for Pampers, or Disney cruises."
Yahoo declined requests for an interview, but said in a statement that the company "believes that all content, including ads, provide more value when well targeted."
Mr. Steinhart has complained to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada about the change. He believes it violates Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which states that an organization cannot make a person's consent to their data being collected (aside from collection necessary to providing the service) a condition of the product or service being delivered.
The Privacy Commissioner's office does not comment on specific complaints, but did say it has looked into matters related to data collection as a condition of service before.
For now, Mr. Steinhart is avoiding accessing his e-mail remotely, to steer clear of the Web service. (Yahoo only manages the Web access, so he is able to use his Rogers mail from his home computer without consenting to the new terms.)
E-mail is just one small part of it: As advertising to people on the devices they use most – mobile phones and tablets – becomes more crucial, personal data are in demand to ensure those ads resonate.
Consumers are increasingly being made aware of companies using their information to show them targeted ads, part of a larger effort to stand out in a cluttered digital environment.
In October, Bell Canada sent notices to its customers to say that it planned to gather more information about them, partly for targeted advertising purposes. The notices gave customers an opt-out option.
The information Bell intends to use in the future includes Internet browsing habits on both mobile devices and computers; app and other device usage; calling patterns; television viewing habits, and customers' location, device type, language preferences, postal codes and demographic information. However, the notice also emphasized that the information shared "outside of Bell Canada and its affiliates" would not personally identify customers.
For example, Bell could use the information to help a hotel advertise more effectively to its customers, by helping that hotel deliver ads only to Bell mobile devices that are being used in the hotel's city by customers who do not live there. It could also give better information about the usage of mobile applications and the effectiveness of other types of campaigns.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada received several complaints following the distribution of the notice and said it would investigate.
Some used the advertising concerns as advertising in itself: following the news in October, Vidéotron Ltée released a statement "to assure its customers that it does not sell the information it obtains about customers in the course of its activities to other companies."
Going forward, the question will be whether companies that want to sell ads can afford not to offer advertisers better access to consumer data.
Asked if Rogers plans to use the kind of personal information specified in the Bell notice in future, Mr. Engelhart said it would look for guidance as to whether it raised privacy concerns.
"I'll be watching the proceedings before the Privacy Commissioner," he said.