Few realize reward plans share data, poll finds
Programs used to track buying information
Valerie Lawton
OTTAWA - Millions of Canadians who eagerly rack up loyalty program points are unaware personal information about their buying habits is being shared or sold, a major new poll shows.

``Most of them don't realize it's all about information collection,'' said Philippa Lawson of the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

The EKOS survey, commissioned by the non-profit group, asked people what they think about how businesses are treating their private information. It will be released today.

Details obtained by The Star show that some 54 per cent of those asked didn't know that programs such as Air Miles or gas station rewards plans collect, use and disclose information about what they buy so they can be targeted with marketing.

The poll also shows the programs are extremely popular - about two-thirds of Canadians have loyalty cards.

The programs allow people to collect points based on the value of the purchases they make. Points can be traded in for everything from free flights to stereos to stuffed animals, depending on the program.

Canada has at least 80 major credit-card-based loyalty programs tied to rewards or retailers.

Air Miles officials declined to comment on the poll. However, Joe Palombo, senior marketing director at The Loyalty Group, which manages the program, said: ``When you enrol, we list out for you exactly why you're enrolling; you're enrolling because there's 100 different (retailers) in the program, you're enrolling to get reward miles . . . and you know that you're going to get (promotional) offers from all these people.''

Members can request not to receive marketing material. Officials said personal information released to participating retailers is extremely limited.

Lawson argued the poll results are disturbing because they show Canadians aren't in control of their own information.

``It's their personal information, they have a right to control it.

``They should be in control of it and what we're seeing is they're not,'' she said.

Lawson, counsel for the Ottawa-based public interest group, blames companies, not shoppers, for the fact so many are in the dark.

`Their business interest is all wrapped up in the collection and trading of this information.'
- Philippa Lawson
Counsel, Public Interest Advocacy Centre

``Their business interest is all wrapped up in the collection and trading of this information. They don't want to be restricted.''

Lawson hopes the poll will help bolster the case of privacy advocates in asking Canada's privacy watchdog to force companies to improve disclosure.

Earlier this summer, privacy commissioner George Radwanski pressured Air Canada to stop - at least for now - a plan to share the personal information of its Aeroplan members with other businesses.

The airline had sent members a brochure advising their information, including financial details, would be shared - unless they wrote in to ``expressly indicate'' disapproval.

Radwanski said that negative option placed the onus on customers and may violate Canada's new national privacy laws.

A spokesperson for Radwanski wouldn't say whether his office has received complaints about other loyalty programs.

The privacy poll involved telephone interviews with just over 1,000 Canadians earlier this summer. It's considered accurate within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Legal Notice:- Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved. Distribution, transmission or republication of any material from is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. For information please contact us or send email to [email protected].