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Telecommunications company monitors customer calls

PIPEDA Case Summary #2003-160

[Section 2; Principle 4.3]


A former employee of a telecommunications company alleged that her ex-employer monitors customer calls to telephone operators without customer knowledge and consent.

Summary of Investigation

There are two types of calls that customers typically place to telephone operators. The most common is a request for directory assistance. The information provided by the customer consists of the city, name and occasionally the street address of the person whose listing is being requested. Under the Regulations Specifying Publicly Available Information, the name, address and telephone number of a subscriber that appears in a telephone directory is considered to be publicly available personal information and as such can be collected, used or disclosed without knowledge and consent. A directory assistance call is either billed to the telephone number the customer is calling from (which appears on the operator's monitor), a third number, or a calling card. In the latter two instances, the customer provides his or her own name and the third number, or a calling card number and the PIN.

The second type of call involves operators completing calls for customers. The customer's telephone number, the name of the person they are calling, and, in the case of collect calls, the customer's name are provided.

The company stated that it does not record calls to operators. Some calls are, however, monitored live when the operator is engaged in side-by-side coaching with a supervisor for the purpose of improving the operator's skills at handling calls. The supervisor does not collect any personal information provided by the customer.

The company indicated that callers' interactions with operators are typically very brief, and that the information shared is for the most part publicly available. The company's position is that customers expect to have a very short conversation with an anonymous operator and that they are not concerned that an anonymous supervisor may be listening to the call in order to coach the operator.

In the company's opinion, informing customers calling for directory assistance or toll calls of call monitoring would not make any difference to what personal information the customer might choose to disclose during the call, nor would it make any difference to the customer's expectations as to how the company would treat any information being provided. The company recognizes that significantly more personal information may be collected during calls to its customer service centres, and as a result, is introducing recorded announcements informing customers calling these centres that calls may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.

Commissioner's Findings

Issued April 16, 2003

Jurisdiction: As of January 1, 2001, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (the Act) applies to any federal work, undertaking, or business. The Commissioner had jurisdiction in this case because a telecommunications company is a federal work, undertaking or business as defined in the Act.

Application: Section 2 of the Act defines personal information to be "...information about an identifiable individual...". Principle 4.3 states that the knowledge and consent of the individual are required for the collection and use of personal information, except where inappropriate.

While the Commissioner acknowledged that very little information is typically disclosed by customers to operators and that much of it is publicly available, he was nevertheless of the view that some of the information in question was personal information for purposes of the Act.

In deliberating over whether consent is required, the Commissioner noted that when supervisors are listening to calls, their attention is focussed on the operators and their ability to handle the call. Although they can hear what is being said, this is strictly incidental to the coaching process. Any notes taken by supervisors are only about the operators. Any personal information provided by the customer is used solely by the operator to provide the requested service. The Commissioner thus determined that the company has no obligation under the Act to inform customers that supervisors listen in on directory assistance and toll calls, and he therefore found that the company was not in contravention of Principle 4.3 of Schedule 1 to the Act.

The Commissioner concluded that the complaint was not well-founded.

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