Privacy commissioner: Sites must make privacy practices easier to understand

Daniel Therrien, Canada's Privacy Commissioner. REUTERS FILE/Chris Wattie

Daniel Therrien, Canada's Privacy Commissioner. REUTERS FILE/Chris Wattie

Sheena Goodyear, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:11 PM ET

Canadians give massive corporations permission to collect reams of personal information about them, often without even realizing it, says Canada's privacy commissioner.

In his latest report to Parliament, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien urges companies to be more transparent about the information they gather from users and what they plan to do with it.

The commissioner's office, along with 19 privacy enforcement authorities, examined the privacy policies of more than 2,000 mobile apps and websites in 2013, and found many either had "no privacy policy at all," or else made them hard to find and navigate. These findings came as no surprise to privacy expert Mike Smit, an information management professor at Dalhousie University.

"My feeling is Canadians are very unaware of how much information is being collected about them," Smit said. "But to their credit, often when they find out, they're quite upset."

The report focused mostly on large companies like Apple, which the commissioner blasted for collecting birthdays and credit card information from people downloading free apps.

The commissioner also targets Google, which uses people's searching habits to show them targeted ads -- a fact that allowed one company to advertise sleep apnea tools to man who "had not consented to the collection and use of his sensitive health information for this purpose."

Apple has agreed to implement the commissioner's recommendations by the fall, while Google said it spends big money trying to stop advertisers from violating its policies against using sensitive information.

"We've invested tens of millions of dollars in cutting-edge technology to fight bad ads online -- making sure that the ads appearing to our users and on our partner sites are safe and respectful of privacy," a Google spokesman said.

While the commissioner can't force companies to do his bidding, Smit said he's been "impressed over the years with what the privacy commissioner of Canada has been able to do to get large companies like Apple and Google to do."

It benefits big companies to make privacy and consent a priority, he said. People are becoming more sensitive to privacy issues and they don't like being tricked.

"Companies have to be doing better at managing people's expectations for how people's information is being used," he said. "I'm an expert of privacy, by some definition of expert, and I don't read all of these policies."

The commissioner's office said it received 426 complaints in 2013, almost double that of the previous year.

But 168 of those were about a Bell Canada marketing scheme introduced in October, in which the telecommunication giant said it would start collecting users' GPS data, app downloads, web activity and TV viewing habits so it could better target its advertising.

Bell's massive reach has means its data collection would be much more powerful and intrusive than that of companies like Facebook or Google, Smit said.

The commissioner said he plans to address that issue -- which has raised the ire of privacy experts and civil liberties organizations, alike -- in his own official complaint, due this fall.


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