A method to determine how deeply Tim Hortons is woven into Canada’s material is a cross-border comparability. If McDonald’s, maybe its closest analogue in the US, needed to have the identical per capita attain in that market as Tim Hortons boasts in Canada, it must roughly triple its 13,000-plus American retailers.

Regardless of being international owned since 2014, Tim Hortons nonetheless waves the Canadian flag as vigorously as it might. However final week, a scathing report by the federal privateness commissioner and three of his provincial counterparts specified by nice element how Tim Hortons ignored a big selection of legal guidelines to spy on Canadians, creating “a mass invasion of Canadians’ privateness.”

“As a society, we might not settle for it if the federal government needed to trace our actions each couple of minutes of daily,” the federal privateness commissioner, Daniel Therrien, mentioned in his final official information convention. “It’s equally unacceptable that personal corporations suppose so little of our privateness and freedom that they will provoke these actions with out giving it greater than a second’s thought.”

The vector for Tim Hortons’ large-scale snooping, in line with the report, was its cell phone app, which was downloaded 10 million instances within the three years following its introduction in 2017. At first, the app had typical retail features involving cost, loyalty factors and inserting orders.

However the privateness commissioners discovered that in 2019, Tim Hortons slipped in a brand new function. With the assistance of Radar, a geolocation software program firm based mostly in the US, it turned the GPS programs in prospects’ telephones into a company snooping software. Many apps, after all, ask customers for permission to entry their telephones’ GPS whereas they’re actively utilizing the apps for probably helpful options like finding the closest outlet of a retailer, financial institution or restaurant.

The Tim Hortons app, nevertheless, went far past that, monitoring customers across the clock anyplace on the earth — even when the app was closed. It recorded not solely their geographic location, however whether or not that location was a home, manufacturing unit or workplace and even, in lots of instances, the title of the constructing they have been in. It even, in line with the report, recorded whether or not they have been popping into rival espresso retailers. The continual monitoring happened regardless of customers being informed that they’d solely be tracked whereas utilizing the app.

Initially, the report discovered, Tim Hortons supposed that the system would monitor people to ship them particular promotions, like coupons for a Tim Hortons stand in the event that they have been, say, at an area for a hockey sport. It dropped that plan to observe people however did use the info, in an aggregated kind, to search for patterns and adjustments in the place and when Canadians picked up their double-doubles.

The report goes on to element a variety of different deficiencies, like insufficient safety of the info the app was harvesting, and deceptions in privateness statements.

The monitoring system was solely shut down in June 2020 after the joint privateness investigation started. It was prompted by an article in The National Post by James McLeod, who found that the app was consistently documenting his whereabouts, even when he was abroad on trip.

When the report was launched, Mr. Therrien and the opposite privateness commissioners made it clear that Tim Hortons had breached the privateness of Canadians to a rare extent.

“Geolocation knowledge is extremely delicate as a result of it paints such an in depth and revealing image of our lives,” he mentioned, including that “the dangers associated to the gathering and use of location data stay excessive, even when ‘de-identified,’ as it might usually be re-identified with relative ease.”

Whereas there are some class actions in opposition to Tim Hortons underway, the corporate has not been fined or penalized below federal or provincial privateness legal guidelines.

The app stays obtainable for obtain on each iPhones and Android telephones. (I requested Apple and Google if the monitoring software program violated their app retailer insurance policies or if that they had taken any motion in opposition to Tim Hortons. Neither firm acquired again to me.)

In an electronic mail, Tim Hortons mentioned that it started its personal privateness assessment in 2020 and is implementing all the suggestions within the privateness fee’s report.

“We’ve strengthened our inner group that’s devoted to enhancing greatest practices in relation to privateness and we’re persevering with to deal with guaranteeing that friends could make knowledgeable choices about their knowledge when utilizing our app,” the corporate mentioned.

Mr. Therrien and out of doors consultants have lengthy argued that Canada’s privateness legal guidelines, or its system for implementing them, are in want of considerable revision. It took a journalist to find what Tim Hortons was doing, the official investigation dragged on for almost two years and, in the end, there have been no penalties. Solely Quebec’s privateness workplace presently has the facility to impose fines, however the most penalty it might have imposed on Tim Hortons, whose company dad or mum had gross sales of $2 billion in 2020, is 10,000 Canadian {dollars}.

“The legal guidelines haven’t any enamel,” Jill Clayton, the knowledge and privateness commissioner for Alberta, informed the information convention.

Mr. Therrien mentioned that the Tim Hortons case will not be an remoted instance — it’s simply the one which was uncovered.

“It’s clear that what occurred in Tim Hortons can also be taking place elsewhere within the collection-of-information ecosystem,” he mentioned. “Are there enough safeguards? Clearly not.”


A local of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Occasions for the previous 16 years. Observe him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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