When I was looking for a KitchenAid mixer that can make soft dough awhile ago, I did some online shopping, which left me with a list of options with different prices and brands. As I was mulling over the best choice, an ad for a brand name mixer appeared on several unrelated websites that I visited in the next few hours.
But I was quite taken back: how did these websites get to know that I wanted to buy a kitchen aid machine? I was grappled with a sense of fear that someone was mysteriously prying into my private life.
But a stunning news story a few weeks later has helped solve the mystery. According to media reports, a man, with sleep apnea, a condition which affects breathing during sleep, filed a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner alleging that his privacy was breached.
This man was searching online for medical devices to treat this medical condition, and he was shocked to be suddenly “followed” by ads for such devices as he visited websites completely unrelated to the sleep disorder.
The Privacy Commissioner confirmed the complainant’s experience. Ads for the medical devices were displayed on test sites about unrelated issues, such as news and weather.
The investigation by OPC revealed that when the man visited sites offering information about continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, a cookie was placed in his computer’s browser. The cookie ultimately triggered ads for CPAP machines to appear on the man’s screen when he visited websites that displayed Google ads.
That investigation had also solved my mystery. While the cookie in my computer could be the biggest betrayer, Google had been prying on my online activities. Sharing the same fear and concerns with this man, I realized that he could be in far more frustrated situation than mine. If a kitchen aid mixer only revealed my dietary concerns at most, losing guard on far more sensitive information of medical conditions could be terrifying and alarming.
In this internet age, consumers’ online activities have increasingly become valuable commodities, as a growing number of companies have collected customers’ online activities to improve their bottom line. Consumers’ online activities has been tracked, collected and used to create a marketing strategy or to be sold to advertisers.
In 2013, Bell Canada allegedly began the controversial Relevant Ads Program that tracked, collected and sold its customers' and Virgin Mobile users' Internet browsing data.
This business practice has harmed consumers’ interests, and raised red flags for OPC. Two years ago, the OPC issued Online behavioral advertising guidelines, prohibiting advertisers from collecting sensitive personal information, such as individuals’ health information, to deliver tailored ads.
In recent weeks, the OPC launched a $750-million class-action lawsuit against Bell Canada for allegedly tracking consumers’ internet activities – including what apps they use, what websites they surfed and what TV shows they watch—and sell the information to advertisers.
The commissioner said Bell's customer profile database "raises privacy concerns".
"The Relevant Ads Program was a misguided attempt by a Canadian telecommunications company to generate advertising revenue. If allowed to proceed, it constitutes a threat to the core privacy rights of all Canadians," Ted Charney of Toronto-based Charney Lawyers said in a release Thursday night.
Bell subsequently agreed to stop building the profiles, promised to delete the data, and to adopt an "opt-in" policy for any similar programs in the future.
In addition to monetary demands, the lawsuit also asks for an expert to be hired to oversee and confirm that Bell has destroyed its customers' personal information, as promised.
But will lawsuits deter other similar business practices from continuing their online prying practices? I seriously doubt it. If I see that I am followed by online ads for a kitchen aid mixer to cut noodles, which is my next product to buy, I wouldn’t be surprised.
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