Should you be afraid of Bell’s data mining plan?

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart: “We are seeing a significant paradigm shift in how personal information is collected, used and fundamentally understood. Personal information has become the common currency that drives this new phenomenon.”

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart: “We are seeing a significant paradigm shift in how personal information is collected, used and fundamentally understood. Personal information has become the common currency that drives this new phenomenon.”

Bell Canada customers last week were alerted to a new data tracking initiative to be undertaken by the telecom giant in an effort to monetize its mobile users’ habits, to begin November 16.

The message, while offering customers the possibility of opting out, put Bell subscribers on notice that the company was set to begin data mining their mobile behaviour, which Bell would then be sharing with their affiliates, including Bell Media Inc. and The Source. While applying strictly to mobile subscribers for now, The press release goes on to say, “Initially, this applies only to Bell Mobility customers but we look forward to expanding it to tv and internet customers in the future.”

And even though Bell assures its customers that their information will be available only to its related “affiliates”, it then goes on to say that “We may also share information with other companies in a way that does not personally identify you. We will allow these companies to produce limited business and marketing reports.”

An influx of complaints by Bell customers has triggered an investigation by the office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. That office has issued a statement, affirming that, “The investigation will examine whether the planned changes to how the organization handles the personal information of customers is compliant with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), the federal law which covers the collection, use and disclosure in the course of commercial activities.”

The Bell uproar has touched a nerve perhaps, coming only a week after Google creeped out most of the internet with an update to its privacy policy in which it let everyone know that your face and name “might appear in Google products (including in reviews, advertising and other commercial contexts).”


The capacity of users to control their personal information is dwindling.

Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, whose 10-year mandate comes to an end this December, writes in a recent “reflection” on the state of Canada’s strategic priority issues: “Whether it be massive collection and aggregation of travel and security-related information, choice of friends, links, tweets, likes and dislikes garnered through social media, consumer online purchasing patterns and web-searching behaviours, whole genome-sequence analyses of entire populations – we are seeing a significant paradigm shift in how personal information is collected, used and fundamentally understood. Personal information has become the common currency that drives this new phenomenon.”

Her report raises many red flags, both with regards to the false distinction between “security” and “freedom” as well as the relentless convergence of user data “on a single online platform such as Facebook, or a single service provider, such as Google. In such an environment, the capacity of users to control their personal information is dwindling.”

There is a bill moving forward in the House of Commons, Bill-C475 to amend PIPEDA, which proposes to strengthen the office of the Privacy Commissioner, adding the power to issue compliance orders and also to issue fines to non-compliant parties.

People who aren’t Bell customers may be breathing a sigh of relief right now. Not so fast. Virgin Mobile, which operates using Bell’s infrastructure and is essentially a Bell subsidiary, has already sent a similar “privacy update” notice to its customers.

Rogers, by contrast, has launched an opt-in initiative called “My Alerts” which proposes to send various promotional discounts and coupons to its users’ cell phones, based on proximity, “conveniently delivered to you when you’re near your favourite brands!”

Meanwhile, people are increasingly touchy about how their data is being hoovered up by commercial interests and government agencies alike, the convergence of which has become increasingly obvious over the past year.

The BC Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit on October 22 to force the recently infamous CSEC to disclose “who they are watching, what is being collected, and how they are handling Canadians’ private communications and information.” While CSEC’s mandate is surveillance of foreign security threats, it has been made obvious that a line has been crossed in their efforts to keep tabs on the Brazilian mining industry.

So, with the NSA in the United States rolling out a charm offensive, to the degree that they are allowed to do so, and Angela Merkel personally chewing out the President of the United States for tapping her cell phone, it seems the worm is finally turning in the mind of the public after a decade or more in which they have been turning their information over to whoever asks for it, with little concern for the consequences of doing so.

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