Cell Phones are Shackles at Bell Prison

If you’re a Bell customer, the company will make you its prisoner next month when it turns your mobile phone into the equivalent of an ankle bracelet that tracks your every move.

And your contract with Bell will become your prison sentence that indentures you to suffer an nigh-escapable term of information servitude to the company.

Starting November 16, Bell will collect data about where you go, who you phone, what apps you use, what web sites you visit, along with many others details about how, when, and where you use your mobile device.

With this data, Bell will build a detailed, highly personal profile of you that it will use widely within Bell and its affiliate companies – including its retail presence, The Source.

This profile will be unprecedented in its scale and scope. Even Google doesn’t know as much about you as Bell soon will.

Then, periodically, Bell will strip away the personal details and melt a copy of your data down into a pot with similar inmates’. It’ll sell that to advertisers for what will certainly be a tremendous profit.

It’s a lucrative new revenue stream for the company. And, frankly, it’s surprising the company didn’t do it a long time ago. US mobile behemoth Verizon has been at it for a couple of years now.

Other companies track our online exploits too, of course. Facebook and Google spring to mind as two companies that make their livings from it.

But we willingly entered into agreements with those companies, permitting them to track what we do online. We understand that they resell our data for profit because, in exchange, we get free services.

So there shouldn’t be much of a problem with what Bell’s doing. And, truly, there isn’t.

The real issue is the way the company is doing it. Bell’s actions and behaviours are, to put it bluntly, immoral and unethical, if not illegal (our federal privacy commission has launched an investigation into that last question).

Consider that Bell didn’t even ask us if it’s okay to collect, analyze, store and resell the most intimate details of our daily lives.

Instead, the company just took its customers for granted.

I signed a contract with Bell for mobile telecommunications services, period. I’ve never authorized or agreed to expansive personal tracking. No Bell customer ever has.

Activities that involve private information gathering in Canada are governed by federal regulations that generally require an “opt-in” mechanism – a technical way of asking permission. Bell appears to consider itself above such paltry niceties and, instead, it’s just flipping an “on” switch as it flips us the bird.

As a result, Bell has effectively altered the legal and ethical relationship it has with customers, without our consent.

Then there’s an issue of compensation. Make no mistake, Bell’s core motive here is money, and the company should have considered cutting us in on the action.

Google alone made over $3 billion in profit from July to September this year, much of which came from selling information to advertisers.

Bell will introduce tens, if not hundreds, of millions of new dollars into its revenue stream by reselling customer activity data.

But, wait: we actually pay Bell, through our monthly service fees, to collect, manage, and resell that data. We’re basically financing Bell’s new business endeavour, with no promise of any return on our personal information investment.

So Bell should have also offered us a tangible benefit like, say, a steep discount on our bill each month in exchange for making our information available to sell.

Possibly the most heinous aspect of Bell’s approach is the fact that there is no way for us to prevent the company from tracking us and reselling information about us. There is no “opt-out” mechanism. We’re trapped.

Finally, Bell should have shared. I’d love to see any profile Bell builds about me that’s based on how I use my mobile device. I’m sure a lot of people would.

There’s nothing wrong with the basic premise of Bell’s new venture. Collecting and reselling customer data is par for the course these days in terms of a business model.

But Bell has just gone about introducing it as a business practice in the worst way possible. The company disrespected its customers and, in my view, breached our privacy rights and interests by introducing extreme new service terms that took advantage of the fact we’re all trapped in a binding contract.

The company should have invited us to participate by politely requesting our permission. It should have provided us with an opportunity to deliberately “opt-in” to having our mobile activities and behaviours tracked, collected, and resold.

Bell should have offered us a share of the spoils. It’s our information for sale, after all, and we already cover the cost of collecting it.

Most importantly, we should have been allowed to deny Bell access to this information, to maintain our privacy. We should have been allowed to “opt-out” and keep information about ourselves to ourselves.

Finally, Bell should share the information with us that it collects about us. Even credit agencies do that.

Honestly, if Bell had taken this approach I would have willingly signed on. Instead, I’m resigned to the fact that the only way to effectively opt-out of Bell’s egregious new terms is to end my 7-year relationship with the company.

So, yeah, I’m paying my Bell bail early and heading over to Telus where they actually respect your privacy. I’d recommend you consider doing the same if you have the opportunity.

In closing, a mea culpa. In my last column I suggested that NorthwesTel hadn’t apologized to its customers for the outage of its internet usage notification tool. In fact, the company had, and so it’s my turn to apologize to NorthwesTel.

The company wrote in an email, “We apologize for the inconvenience.” When I wrote that the company hadn’t apologized, I was including reference to the customers who had suffered extra monetary penalties as a result of the outage of the tool. I think we all can agree that unexpected sums on a bill qualify as slightly more than an “inconvenience,” so it’s arguable that the company hadn’t fully apologized. But maybe I was splitting hairs. So I’d like to offer a heartfelt apology to NorthwesTel for the, um, inconvenience.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 25, 2013.

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