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Privacy Commissioner investigates Bell advertising program

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has released the findings of its recent investigation into Bell's Relevant Advertising Program. The program tracks the usage behaviour of Bell customers, including every website customers visit, every mobile application they use, every television show they watch and every telephone call they make. That information is combined with demographic customer data such as age range, gender, average revenue, preferred language and postal code, then used to display behaviourally targeted third-party advertising to consumers.

In the findings, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien stated that this data collection has such a significant impact on privacy that the company must ask customers if they wish to opt in. According to the commissioner, Bell has agreed to make several changes to the program, but has so far refused to switch to an opt-in system. Its existing system required customers to opt out of the ad program by clicking a link on the program's web page and following a series of prompts. Customers who do not do so are automatically included in the program.

Bell has agreed to a recommendation to stop building profiles for customers who do not wish to participate, and to immediately delete the information it has already collected about them. Bell has also agreed to include language in its agreement with advertisers forbidding them from the use of cookies or other tracking methods to link demographic information from Bell with specific consumers. Bell has agreed to stop including credit score information in its customer profiles, and to switch to the use of partial postal codes instead of full postal codes.

"Bell's ad program involves the use of vast amounts of its customers' personal information, some of it highly sensitive," said Therrien. "Bell should not simply assume that, unless they proactively speak up to the contrary, customers are consenting to have their personal information used in this new way. While we are pleased that Bell has agreed to implement many of our recommendations, we are disappointed that the company has not adequately addressed the critical issue of consent. We remain hopeful that Bell will reconsider its position but are prepared to address this unresolved issue in accordance with our authorities under PIPEDA, which could involve taking the matter to the Federal Court."

According to the commissioner, Bell's program has resulted in an "unprecedented" 170 privacy complaints under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. Therrien also stated that the Privacy Commissioner will be monitoring the issue of behavioural advertising and will "reach out" to other organizations in the telecommunications sector who are engaged in the practice.

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