DIGGING DEEPER: Careful what you say to customer service

Telecoms collect lots of information about customers that can be turned over to law enforcement, but there's no guarantee it's accurate

Western News reporter Joe Fries digs deeper.

Western News reporter Joe Fries digs deeper.

After reading through nearly four years’ worth of notes made by Shaw customer service agents following their dealings with me, I’m feeling just a little sheepish.

According to the notes, the agents tried to be patient and nice, but I was prone to throwing fits and hanging up on them as I asked Shaw to match promotional offers from rival Telus.

For the record, I don’t deny asking for better, which is my right as a customer, but I do deny being rude.

Did my efforts get me anywhere? No. And truth be told, I won’t leave Shaw for Telus, because all those deals for free stuff require a three-year contract, which is a scary thing for guys like me who fear commitment. Just ask my fiancee, who kindly waited nine years for a ring.

What’s more scary, however, is just how much information those telecommunications companies collect about us and how often they hand it over to authorities.

In 2011 alone, telecoms provided law enforcement agencies with information on 780,000 customers, according to data recently released by Canada’s privacy commissioner.

Some of those disclosures were no doubt legitimate, perhaps to track people sharing child pornography on the Internet, but you have to wonder if at least some of the requests were mere fishing expeditions.

You also have to wonder exactly what the telecoms have on you and if it’s accurate. In my case, I’m not so sure.

I got my Shaw file notes after emailing a letter produced by a simple online tool called Access My Info. It’s free and available at www.openmedia.ca/myinfo, and companies are obliged to respond.

I was shocked by one particular exchange documented in my response package.

As the agent I dealt with on Sept. 1, 2010,  noted, I called in that day to inquire about Shaw matching an offer from Telus for $15-a-month home phone and Internet service.

“When we tried to get some details about this promo that he saw,” the agent wrote, I started “throwing a fit and getting frustrated.”

“He basically just wanted a yes/no answer if we will match the rate or not, kept cutting me off. We tried to be patient and nice to (Joe) but it didn’t help, he hung up while on hold.”

I have no doubt I became frustrated trying to get a straight answer, but I deny throwing a fit. And therein lies the problem, according to one expert.

“They’re taking notes that reflect their take on the situation, but probably wouldn’t be very objective, and they’re storing those notes and they could potentially be handed over to law enforcement without a warrant,” said David Christopher, spokesman for Open Media, one of the partners in Access My Info.

“If someone takes the wrong view and draws the wrong conclusion that you’re a raving lunatic or an angry person, you could lose out,” he said. “This is obviously a concern.”

Christopher also warned that the Protecting Canadians From Online Crime Act, which gained preliminary approval in Parliament on Wednesday, grants immunity to telecoms that provide customers’ personal information to law enforcement agencies without a warrant, a practice ruled unconstitutional in June by the Supreme Court of Canada.

With such a law looming, I urge you to find out what your telecom company has on you. Just make sure you’re polite about it.

Joe Fries is a reporter at the Western News.