Word that Bell Canada is diving into the targeted-advertising game should not come as a surprise.
In fact, they're late to the party, seeing how Google, Twitter and Facebook already compile our online meanderings, the better to snipe us with interest-specific ads. This piece on Lifehacker.com, for instance, explains how Facebook uses data for targeted advertising.
They clutter our web pages like clots of salesmen lurking outside our front doors. But we ignore them for the most part, tune them out visually. How often do you click on one of those ads on the right-hand side of your Facebook page, or annoyingly attached to a post on your news feed?
But that's not the point, privacy advocates say. Bell's plan to start collecting our account and network-usage information later this month to create a profile for its ad clients is a "disturbing trend," Michael Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, told CBC News recently.
The practice, which Bell calls its "relevant advertising program," will give the telecom giant and its affiliates the kind of insights into our personal lives that rivals the intrusive aspects of the U.S. National Security Agency's much decried surveillance program.
The association is already going after the Canadian government in the courts, challenging the constitutionality of surveillance activities by Communications Security Establishment Canada, the NSA's little Canadian brother.
We are allowing an increasing number of organizations into our private lives, warns David Christopher of OpenMedia.ca, a non-profit Internet watchdog group.
“Often people use the internet for quite personal or very private stuff – for things like holding medical consultations online, what banks people use, whether they use a dating website even,” Christopher told CBC News.
“They’ve a reasonable expectation this usage would be private, that it’s not all going to be tracked, stored and advertised back at them.”
Bell – and eventuality its competitors Rogers and Telus – want a piece of that profitable action and have some additional tools that social media outfits often don't, such as phone-usage history and location information via GPS or cell-tower sites, and eventually you're TV-viewing habits if you're a Bell TV client.
Bell's spin is that it's all about improving the customer experience.
“We’re looking to make online advertising that mobile customers already see more relevant to them," the company told CBC News in an emailed statement.
“Like any wireless carrier, Bell tracks customer usage information for practical purposes – network optimization and expansion, new services, billing purposes, and other business reasons,” the statement said. “But we never share this information externally. We’re committed to protecting customer privacy, and this initiative is fully compliant with Canadian privacy regulations."
And Bell's customers can apparently opt out anytime by visiting this web page.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada plans to look into Bell's plans. It published a position paper last year on the issue of what it calls online behavioural advertising (OBA).
It noted most web users accept the presence of online ads as the price for free content, though many were also uncomfortable with the thought their activities were being tracked. The privacy commissioner said the opt-out option needs to be more clearly spelled out.
How troubled should we be about this trend? Bell promises it won't share information that identifies you outside of its corporate network (unless it's the cops asking, of course). Is that good enough for you?
Some observers think the advent of the Internet and social media have shifted our conceptions of privacy or even reduced its importance.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in a weekend piece about the British phone-hacking scandal, noted some people believe the issue is generational.
The generation that's come of age online, used to tweeting every burp and fart of their daily lives, is supposed to less concerned that those who grew up with traditional notions of the private and personal.
So maybe the issue is irrelevant to them? They implicitly trust service providers with their increasingly intimate personal information. At least until it's misused.