#CyberFLASH: Why Bell’s opting-out approach isn’t good enough

BCE Beats Profit Estimates as Smartphone Subscribers GainBell’s targeted advertising program, which creates customer profiles that include age, gender, account location, credit score, pricing plan, and average revenue per user, generated controversy from the moment it was announced in October 2013. The communications giant maintained that it complied with Canadian privacy laws, yet many clearly disagreed as the Privacy Commissioner of Canada received an unprecedented barrage of complaints.

While concerns about tracking Internet usage and search queries garnered headlines, the fundamental legal issue was whether Bell was entitled to force its millions of customers to opt-out of the targeted advertising program if they did not wish to participate or if the law requires an explicit, opt-in approach in which consumers must proactively ask to be included before their tracking information is used for advertising purposes.

This week the Privacy Commissioner of Canada rendered his verdict: Bell’s targeted advertising program violates the law since the consumer data used by Bell is sufficiently sensitive such that an opt-out approach does not adequately protect user privacy. Bell argued that the information it collects is non-sensitive and that opt-out was therefore good enough.

If the consumer data is taken piece by piece, Bell might have been right. Yet in an era of “big data”, the Privacy Commissioner effectively concluded that the sum of personal information is more than the parts. In the case of Bell, he placed the spotlight on the remarkable scale of the company’s data collection and usage:

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