Canada's privacy commissioner will be investigating after Bell informed customers by letter that it plans to begin collecting detailed information about their consumption habits in order to offer “relevant ads.”

Scott Hutchinson, a spokesman for the privacy commissioner, told CBC Montreal that his office has received several complaints. 

Bell customers received the letter last week telling them that the changes would begin on Nov. 16.

'They’ll know virtually everything about you.'- Michael Geist, technology law expert

“They’ll literally know what web pages you visit, which search terms you enter, where you happen to be, what apps you use, what television you watch, even your calling patterns,” said Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and technology law specialist.

“They figure that level of detail will offer up the ability to have highly targeted advertising. They’ll know virtually everything about you.”

Customers have until Nov. 16 to opt out, but Geist said they may not be aware of what, exactly, they’re really opting out of.

“As far as I can tell, when you’re opting out, you’re opting out of targeted ads. You’re not opting out of the broader collection more generally,” Geist told CBC's Daybreak host Mike Finnerty on Tuesday morning.

Philippe Viel of the Montreal-based consumer protection group Union des consommateurs puts it more bluntly.

“The only option to opt out offered is to not receive relevant ads. They’re going to collect the data anyway,” he said.

Dangerous precedent

Bell refused an interview request, but issued this statement:

"What's new is that we're giving Bell customers the option to receive internet advertising that's relevant to them rather than the random online advertising they're receiving now. The number of ads customers see won't increase and they can opt out anytime by visiting bell.ca/relevantads. We're giving customers advance notice before we start offering relevant advertising on Nov. 16."

Geist said customers should be asked to opt in, rather than opt out.

“That’s not what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re forcing people to opt out, and making the default that everybody gets monitored and tracked.”

Viel said that while Bell may be acting in accordance with the law, the program is not ethically sound. He said mobile customers who aren’t in agreement with being tracked don’t have many options, because leaving a mobile contract early means substantial early termination fees.

Geist and Viel said that the monitoring, while not currently performed by other Canadian telecoms, sets a dangerous precedent. Viel said that mobile providers and telecommunications companies are prone to following industry trends, and that it may just be a matter of time before other companies start similar programs.

“This is an open invitation for law enforcement to know that they’ve got one of the most detailed customer profiles possible in the country,” he said.

He suggests that instead of forcing Bell’s customers into being monitored, Bell should offer incentives to encourage people to opt in as a way of sharing the economic value of the data collection windfalls.

A regular discount on customers’ monthly bill in exchange for participating in the data collection would be a more appropriate course of action, Geist said.

But both he and Viel said a wider approach is needed to protect customers' information.

Provincial and federal regulators need to look at the ethics of this kind of data collection immediately, Viel said — but until then, Bell has no plans to put the brakes on its relevant ads project.