Northern Sprites: Crack in the bell

Bell, one of Canada’s largest telecom companies, has recently announced that they are going to begin collecting more detailed data from their customers for the purpose of selling this information to advertisers and third parties.

This reveal will hardly come as a surprise to many Canadians. All three of Canada’s biggest telecom companies — Telus, Rogers and Bell — have a history of unscrupulous business practises, with Bell being the most ruthless of them all.

Bell was one of the biggest proponents of usage based billing, which charges Internet clients by the amount of data they use rather than sticking to a monthly plan. The company actively petitioned several federal commissions in an attempt to have this type of billing structure more widely accepted, but they were forced to back down in the face of public outcry.

This decision to begin collecting more in-depth information from their customers has triggered a similar backlash, despite Bell’s attempts to justify their decision. Bell claims that users will actually benefit from this increased data collection, because it will allow the company to target people with ads specific to their interests and their lifestyles.

However, targeted ads seem inadequate compensation when you consider the sheer amount of data Bell will have open access to. The company will be able to access locations, usage patterns, search histories, app purchases, call histories and virtually every other piece of information they can gain from monitering their customers’ phones and computers.

Usage monitoring of this scale is unheard of in Canada, and may not even be completely legal. While Bell asserts that its new policy follows Canadian law, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada will be commencing an investigation to ensure this claim is true.

While customers do have the ability to opt-out of this program, they will be automatically opted-in with almost no forewarning. The opt-out page is also loaded with not-so-subtle hints that customers are better off with simply accepting the targeted ads, since “people typically prefer to see ads that are as relevant to them as possible.”

Despite their questionable business tactics, Bell still maintains a grip on the Canadian telecom sector because of their wide-spread coverage in rural areas. Hopefully, there will be enough of a public outrage as a result of this increased data collection to deter other companies from following in Bell’s footsteps — or even convince Bell to backtrack on their decision.

Northern Sprites is a column about technology and video games. It is written by a nerd.

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