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Bell, the Canadian telecommunications giant, is facing a $750 million lawsuit over alleged privacy violations relating to its Relevant Ads Program. This national class-action lawsuit is being filed on behalf of Bell Mobility and Virgin Mobile customers who have had sensitive personal information and activity data sold to advertisers by Bell.

The Relevant Ads Program began in 2013, and worked on an opt-out basis. Data was sold to advertisers by default and customers had to deliberately opt-out of the program to keep the data private. Over 113,000 customers decided to opt-out, feeling this program was invasive to their privacy. Canada’s privacy commissioner also began looking into the matter after receiving an “unprecedented volume of complaints.”

After investigating the program, the privacy commissioner determined that it was in violation of the Telecommunications Act, which has provisions that protect user privacy. While an opt-out approach might have been acceptable in different circumstances, the privacy commissioner ruled that an opt-in approach is required due to the wide range of sensitive data that was being sold. Bell was selling not only browsing activity, but also personal information linked to accounts such as age, gender, and location.

Bell has declined to comment on the allegations contained in the lawsuit. Bell has canceled the Relevant Ads Program and has stated its intention destroy all the profiles related to the program. The plaintiffs do not trust Bell to carry out that task. In addition to the $750 million, the lawsuit also seeks the appointment of an expert to oversee the destruction of the personal information.

Bell has stated its intentions to create a similar program in the future, and even expand it to cover landline usage and TV viewers. However, Bell clearly stated that any future ad-targeting programs would work on an opt-in basis. Even with an opt-in policy by Bell, some groups are still not satisfied. Two groups which filed complaints against Bell’s old program, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Consumer Association of Canada, have stated that they will fight any new ad-targeting program by Bell.

Is an opt-out approach adequate to protect user privacy, or should an opt-in policy be required? Leave your comments below

Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.