March 31, 2018 5:00 am
Updated: March 31, 2018 8:22 pm

Not just Facebook: How retailers and the payments industry can track, profile you

WATCH: Impact of Facebook data scandal in Canada

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Perhaps you’re thinking about whether you should unfriend Facebook once and for all.

News that the Silicon Valley giant unwittingly let political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which advised the Trump campaign, access the personal data of tens of millions of users without permission has prompted many to delete their Facebook profiles.

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READ MORE: How Cambridge Analytica’s use of 50 million Facebook users’ data turned into a scandal

But if you’re concerned about companies learning too much about you, you might want to consider ditching your credit and debit cards — and your phone, too.

Every time you buy something using anything other than cash or a cheque, you’re transmitting information about yourself. And the data can go far beyond what’s needed to process your payment to include things like your browsing and purchase history, your location and even your social media contacts, warns the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC).

Your wallet may very well be the next frontier when it comes to user data collection. On one hand, tech giants like Google, Amazon and Apple are acting more and more like a bank, with digital wallets that store your payment information and let you pay through an app. On the other hand, banks and other traditional financial institutions, which have long been sitting on enormous amounts of customer information, are becoming much better at dissecting and monetizing it, thanks to ever more sophisticated algorithms.

READ MORE: Facebook, Google and others are tracking you. Here’s how to stop targeted ads

“The payments industry should be extremely concerned about all of the unauthorized uses of customers’ personal data and the unintended consequences of having unauthorized third parties accessing this data,” said Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former Information and Privacy Commissioner and current head of the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ryerson University in Toronto.

But you don’t even need to make a payment for some retailers to be able to track and profile you. According to the OPC, companies are increasingly using the cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals from your phone to record your in-store movements — no purchase necessary. Some can even capture your presence out on the street, if you happen to be strolling by their shopfront with a smartphone in your pocket.

WATCH: Facebook takes out newspaper ads, promises to ‘do better’ in wake of Facebook Analytica scandal

Here’s what you can do to avoid unintentional data sharing

The OPC has a few tips for Canadians who want to get a handle on how and with whom they share their personal data. Some of them are obvious (don’t share your card numbers and PINs and use strong passwords when creating a user account), others less so:

Understand what happens if you log in with your social network profile

How many times when shopping online have you been asked whether you wanted to create a new user account or just log in with, say, your Facebook or Google account?

It’s always tempting to not have to create and remember yet another password. However, “you should be aware that signing in using a social network site could tie your social activity to your purchases,” writes the OPC.

READ MORE: What does Google know about you? Here’s how to find out

Use caution with free Wi-Fi

Retailers and third-party partners can use free Wi-Fi to gather information like your location, online search activity, loyalty programs and what’s in your digital shopping carts through your phone.

Check out the terms of service before signing in, advises the OPC, to understand what data you might be offering up in exchange for your “free” wireless connection. You should also know that logging into these Wi-Fi services with your social media networks generally grants access to even more personal information.

READ MORE: Here’s how to download your Facebook data, and why you’ll probably want to

Consider turning off location-tracking on your phone

Some in-store sensors will detect your phone using cellular, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth data without any kind of interaction on your end. The amount of information companies can gather this way is limited. However,”these identifiers can be used for tracking the sections of a store where the device has been located and what products or goods it has been near,” writes the OPC.

If that gives you the creeps, you can shut off location tracking on your device.

(Note: This advice also applies if you use Bluetooth and connect to a store’s app.)

For further information, please see the OPC’s research paper on The Internet of Things.

READ MORE: The internet is convinced our phones are listening to us. Here’s what the experts say

There may be caveats with emailed receipts, too

Having a store email you your receipt is handy — not to mention environmentally friendly. But you may want to ask how your email address and purchase information are going to be used, says the OPC.

Keep in mind, also, that free email services (think: Gmail or Hotmail) may scan your inbox to send you targeted ads.

WATCH: Jeff Semple looks at what those companies know about you, and how they use it to influence you. 

Understand the privacy implications of joining loyalty programs

The trade-in for discounts and other perks often goes well beyond customer loyalty. Retailers often collect a wealth of information through reward programs, so make sure you’re OK with how it’s being used.

You should also know that downloading a store or loyalty app on your phone may allow much more detailed in-store tracking and profiling.

WATCH: Personalized google ads are no coincidence

The problem with the fine print and Canada’s current privacy rules

The OPC has plenty of advice for privacy-conscious Canadians, but a lot of it involves reading the fine print and asking pointed questions.

But people shouldn’t have to wade through pages of legalese to figure out what personal data they’re giving up and how it’s going to be used, said Cavoukian.

“No one does that, give me a break,” she told Global News.

Instead of putting it on customers to find the opt-out option, lawmakers should make privacy the default setting, she added.

Fortunately, Canada may finally be starting to move in that direction. The Facebook scandal undoubtedly has created new momentum behind the push to revise the country’s online privacy rules. But there’s also the fact that the European Union is about to implement stricter privacy laws in May, which could complicate cross-border trade if Ottawa doesn’t update its own regulations. On Feb. 28, a parliamentary report recommended doing just that.

“I’m optimistic,” Cavoukian said. “Everybody is on side.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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