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Tim Hortons app stirs up controversy, sparks investigation amid privacy concerns

Last Updated Jun 29, 2020 at 2:40 pm CDT

A Tim Hortons coffee shop in downtown Toronto, on Wednesday, June 29, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eduardo Lima.

Privacy commissioners are investigating Tim Hortons' app and what information it's gathering from customers

Concerns have been raised about the app's privacy settings

Technology privacy expert says investigation opens up conversation around privacy legislation

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) – Tim Hortons is under the microscope after concerns were raised that it was using geolocation tracking on its app.

Privacy commissioners from across Canada are launching an investigation into the company after media reports “raised questions about the apps’ privacy settings.”

The probe, to be conducted by privacy commissioners in B.C., Quebec, Alberta, as well as the federal commissioner, is set to look at whether the coffee giant is getting customers’ consent to “collect, use and disclose geolocation and associated data, including for the creation of detailed user profiles.”

B.C. Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy says the investigation, which will take months, is pretty straightforward.

“When we look at an investigation like this, we would determine exactly what’s being collected, how it’s being used, and the question is, ‘Did you, as a consumer, actually give your permission for those uses,'” he explains. “The basic notion [of] our privacy laws in Canada in the private sector is that for apps to operate they need your permission. And what they need to be clear about is exactly what they’re gathering about you, how they’re using your information, and that they do so reasonably.”

Simply put, McEvoy says the investigation will look at whether the Tim Hortons app is being used for more than just ordering your coffee.

Investigation highlights lack of privacy legislation: expert

Technology privacy expert Dominic Vogel says this rightly could affect far more than just Tim Hortons apps, and that many need greater limits.

“Most apps have more permissions to your phone, to your data, than they need to have so this is part of a much broader privacy discussion,” he explains.

Vogel believes this represents a breaking point when it comes to unsanctioned use of data.

“I think it’s great to see that the privacy commissioners in those four jurisdictions are taking Tim Hortons to task there, because … I think we’re finally reaching a tipping point where organizations truly need to be held accountable, especially Canadian organizations,” he tells NEWS 1130, adding this is an opportunity to look at and implement new privacy legislation.

“We still do lag very far behind the European Union in terms of privacy legislation,” Vogel says.

In a statement, Tim Hortons, which is owned by Restaurant Brands International Inc., writes it’s prepared to cooperate with the investigation, and that it is “confident we’ll be able to resolve this matter.

Since Tim Hortons launched our mobile app, our guests always had the choice of whether they share location data with us, including ‘always’ sharing location data – an option offered by many companies on their own apps,” the statement adds. “We recently updated the Tim Hortons app to limit the collection of location data to only while guests have our app open, even if a guest has selected ‘Always’ in their device settings.”

Vogel says customers likely don’t have too much to worry about.

He believes people should push their provincial and federal politicians for more protection of their privacy. “Privacy as being a basic human right, as they see it in the EU, and I think that’s what people should be pushing provincial legislatures or federal members of parliament to ensure that there’s greater reaches within privacy legislation within the country,” Vogel says.