Do online programs that I use to do my taxes sell my information?

Reader Heather Osborne in Ottawa asks: “If I use tax software, is my data protected?  Or am I giving away my personal financial information?” Report on Business reporter Ian McGugan says, “No – at least not without your consent. You should check the details in the privacy agreement that accompanies whichever software package you use, but generally you must approve any use of your personal information.” He explains:

Intuit, maker of the popular TurboTax software, declares it “will not rent, sell, or otherwise distribute your personal information without your permission.” The main exceptions are if courts demand the information be handed over or if the information is “reasonably required” to fulfill your service or product requirements, but even then the third parties are bound to privacy requirements.

H&R Block, the maker of another popular tax software package, takes a similar line. “We do not disclose your personal information to third parties except as described in this Privacy Policy, with your consent, or as permitted or required by law.” A spokesperson says the company does not sell any personal information and the company’s privacy statement assures users that “H&R Block only retains personal information for as long as necessary or required for the purposes for which it was collected or as required by law.”

But here’s where things get tricky: Read your privacy statement and you’ll find that every tax software company will acknowledge making use of your personal information in various ways that does not involve actually selling it. You may or may not find these to be objectionable.

H&R Block, for instance, says it will use your personal information to alert you to products and tailor marketing material to your needs. You can choose not to receive these materials by calling them at a number provided or sending them an e-mail.

For its part, Intuit says it may aggregate many individuals’ information to provide a composite picture of, say, how many people bought a product. However, Julie Smithers, a spokesperson for the company, says it does not sell aggregate information to third parties. If Intuit shares aggregate data with other parties for whatever purpose, it attempts to purge the data of anything that could be used to identify an individual.

“If or when aggregate data sharing occurs… those data sets are de-identified using proprietary algorithms,” Ms. Smithers says. “We also require vendors and partners via contract to not re-identify the data.”

The key lesson here? Read the privacy statement and make sure you understand how your information is being used. Each company has a chief privacy officer you should contact if you have concerns. You can also take advantage of various provisions for controlling the future use of your personal information. Intuit, for instance, will usually alert you about product revisions or updates, but you can choose not to receive them.

While consumers should always remain suspicious, there is no indication that tax software companies are abusing the current system. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada says it has never investigated a complaint involving tax software.

Companies’ apparent good behavior on this point probably reflects a bit of enlightened self-interest. It would, after all, be a singularly stupid tax preparer that would jeopardize its business by blatantly disclosing personal information. But companies are also responding to Canada’s privacy laws.

The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act sets rules for how companies may collect and use information. It says companies can use personal information only for the purposes for which it was collected. “If an organization is going to use it for another purpose, consent must be obtained again,” says a guide to the act.

“Canadian privacy laws are generally rooted in reasonableness, notice and consent” writes David Fraser, a partner in the Halifax law firm McInnes Cooper and a leading authority on privacy law. A company that wants to use your personal information must give you notice and tell you about what it intends to do. It must get your consent and the purpose must be reasonable.

In an interview, Mr. Fraser said he’s not aware of any litigation in Canada that has ever arisen from privacy concerns regarding tax software.

He added that Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner takes a dim view of companies that try to push the limits. It recently rebuked Bell Canada for its attempt to track people’s browsing habits, phone call patterns and app usage, then sell that information to marketers so they could deliver targeted advertising. The commissioner insisted that Bell get customers’ explicit consent to opt into the program, rather than simply allowing people to opt out of it.

Mr. Fraser said the requirement that users provide explicit, opt-in consent for use of their information takes on particular force when information is deemed to be particularly sensitive – as personal financial data undoubtedly would be.

“I’d expect that most of the info on a tax return is at the sensitive end of the spectrum, so any creator of tax preparation software would have to get opt-in consent to any secondary use of that sensitive personal information,” he writes.

“Secondary use encompasses a pretty broad range of activities and may use a range of information. It may be expected and reasonable for Intuit to use some of your less sensitive information to market other Intuit products  – ‘you used the small business deduction, maybe you’d like our small business accounting product’ – but less okay for them to take sensitive information (the fact that you’re married, have two kids, make $250K, have loads of RRSPs and live in a particular neighbourhood) and sell that info to a condo developer or a financial planner.

“In any event, under Canadian privacy laws, they’d have to disclose that in their privacy statements.”

Follow McGugan on Twitter here, and read The Globe’s Six tax-filing tips to save you money

What kind of books does The Globe review?

Our latest question comes from Sean Cummings. He asked the following question via Twitter: #asktheglobe Why don’t you review genre fiction? Your books section reviews that which most folks DON’T read.

For the answer we turned to Books Editor Mark Medley, who gives his response.

Hi Sean, I respectfully disagree with the assertion that the Globe doesn’t cover the books that people want to read. Just this past Saturday, for instance, we published a 1500-word profile of Jennifer Robson, who writes popular historical romances as is a fixture on our bestseller list. In fact, looking at this past weekend’s Canadian bestseller lists, we have covered every single book on the fiction list, and half of the books on the non-fiction list. (And the only reason we haven’t covered some of these books is because they are financial guides or self-help books, which we don’t generally review.) As far as genre fiction, Margaret Cannon has long been a fixture in our pages, and we publish six reviews by her (focusing on crime fiction) each month. Marissa Stapley also writes a regular column on commercial fiction, which debuted in early 2015. Shannon Ozirny writes a monthly round-up of the best in YA fiction, as well.

As you can see, The Globe regularly reviews genre fiction. Thanks for the question Sean.

If you have a question that you would like answered, use #AskTheGlobe and we will do our best to search for the answer.

What are the guidelines for how The Globe presents sponsored content?

This question comes from SurlyTorontoConsumer via Twitter: “Does the @globeandmail plan to ever disclose to readers which news articles are ‘sponsored’ by companies mentioned in them? #asktheglobe”

Sean Stanleigh, Managing Editor of Globe Edge Content Studio, responds:

In terms of stories that contain mentions of paying sponsors, we clearly disclose those relationships through use of the label Sponsor Content, highlighted at the top of each page, whether in print or online. These include advertorials and native advertising, in which advertisers have input into story ideation and final approvals on content prior to publication. These stories also use different visual cues, such as fonts and templates, and they live in a separate area of, which you’ll find here.

Click here for more information about Globe Edge Content Studio.

Hope that helps SurlyTorontoConsumer. If you have a question that you would like answered, use #AskTheGlobe and we will do our best to search for the answer.

What is the difference between a hate crime and a terrorist attack?

“Why are attacks against some considered terrorism, while this is only a ‘hate crime’?” asks Joel Arthurs via Twitter in respect to our story about a Mosque in Peterborough, Ont. that was deliberately set on fire.

Sean Fine, The Globe’s justice writer gave this response:

The reader raises a good question. Terrorism and some hate crimes may overlap. Hate may be linked to a political, religious or ideological purpose – part of the definition of terrorism. And why do people commit hate crimes if not to intimidate? Intimidation is also part of the definition of terrorism.

But the Peterborough mosque example is straightforward. Someone threw a bottle with flammable liquid through a window, causing a reported $100,000 in smoke damage. Under Canada’s 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act, property damage qualifies as terrorism only if it is substantial, and likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, or endanger public health or safety. Or if the act “causes serious interference with or serious disruption of an essential service, facility or system.” A nuclear plant, for instance.

The wording of the terrorism law communicates the largeness of scale of terrorist crimes and motivations, as Parliament views them. The intimidation clause, for instance, includes an intention to compel “a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act. . .”

“Terrorism requires attacks on individuals, not just buildings,” Winnipeg human rights lawyer David Matas says. “It trivializes the concept of terrorism to use it for property damage.”

What is a hate crime? In Canadian law, it is a crime to advocate or promote genocide, punishable by up to five years in prison. It is also a crime to incite hatred of an identifiable group, if that incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace. (Maximum sentence: two years.)

But the term “hate crime” is most commonly used to describe any crime — assault or arson, for instance — in which hate is an aggravating factor. The Criminal Code written by Parliament instructs judges to increase sentences when there is “evidence that the offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or any other similar factor.”

“Hate crimes in Canada are simply a sentencing enhancement and not an independent crime,” University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach says. The penalty for arson would be increased if the court finds the arsonist’s motivation was hate.

But it is not always a simple matter to separate hate crimes from terrorism.
Imagine that a janitor working in the mosque was killed. Murder doesn’t require intent; it is enough that the person throwing the flammable liquid was willfully blind to the possibility. The charge could be murder, with hate as an aggravating factor. (Second degree murder, like that of first degree, carries an automatic penalty of life in prison, but the parole eligibility varies from 10 to 25 years; hate could mean more prison time.) Or the death of a janitor in the mosque could have resulted in a terrorism charge. All the elements — the intent to intimidate, the political motive, the death — are there.

The same goes for Justin Bourque’s killings of three RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B., last year, or Marc Lepine’s massacre of 14 women a École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989. Terrorism or murder? That is where a prosecutor’s discretion comes into play.

 Follow Sean Fine on Twitter and if you have a question that you would like answered, use #AskTheGlobe and we will do our best to search for the answer.

Shouldn’t The Globe do away with anonymous commenters?

“Should the Globe require real names be used in your online reader comments sections?” asks Dave Ings in Toronto. “It might elevate and civilize the tone of the discussions and reduce the trolling.”

The Globe’s senior social media editor Melissa Whetstone says that’s a commonly-considered option in the newsroom – but we’re not convinced. “We’ve also wondered whether The Globe should require commenters to use their real names. and whether doing so would improve the level of conversation on our site,” Whestone says. It’s a subject of much debate with no simple answer:

How do you force commenters to use their real names in the first place? It’s easy enough to create a fake profile. You could force users to sign up with one of their social media profiles, but what’s stopping them from setting up a fake account there? Besides, it’s not like Facebook or Twitter is troll-free. People there are often not shy about posting abusive or offensive comments under their real names, right along with that profile photo of them and their smiling kids.

There’s also the argument that not allowing anonymity would stifle discussion around sensitive or controversial topics. Maybe you have a deeply personal story you think would add value to a conversation, but don’t necessarily want your co-workers to come across it. Chances are you wouldn’t bother to share it.

The Globe is aware that our commenting system is not perfect. But we have mechanisms to try and make it a place for valuable discussion and debate. We have options to report for abuse comments and users who break our community guidelines. Moderators review these reports and remove comments or block users when warranted. When covering topics that tend to attract a high number of abusive comments, we set articles to premoderation. This means all comments on that article must be reviewed by a moderator before appearing online.

Some news organizations have removed comments from their site entirely, unable or unwilling to tolerate the troubles any longer. That’s a shame. There’s still value in comments  -whether on our own site or social media. (Take a look at this piece we published last week as one example.) The Coral Project is one group looking at ways to improve community and commenting on news sites through technology. I’m eager to see what they come up with. I’m sure many readers are too.

Follow Melissa Whetstone on Twitter, and read more on the subject: Online anonymity is too precious to give up


Why do dogs bark?

“I have a small female dog and she barks often for no apparent reason,” writes Jacques Hache in Gatineau, Quebec. “Can The Globe tell me, why do dogs bark?” The Globe’s resident dog lady and Canada Q&A editor Amberly McAteer has your answer:

Dogs are adorable weirdos: Mine eat my socks, chew on each other’s faces, roll in anything that smells terrible.  But barking for no reason is not a dog trait I’m personally familiar with – so I called in the expert: Jeff Cooke, president and head trainer at Bark Busters Canada, an international company that specializes in dog training and therapy. “Asking why a dog barks is like asking why a child cries. There are a million possible reasons,” Cooke says from his office in Squamish, B.C. Typically, he says, a dog bark is meant to alert the pack. “It most often means there is something strange or alarming going on here, and you should know about it.”

Barking when the doorbell rings is a great example: “Your dog is saying someone is here, and we should decide if we want to let them in.”

Cooke recommends studying your dog’s body language at the time he barks – it’s a much better indication of how he’s feeling at the time. A bark to indicate an alert, or fear, or play all use very different body language.  “If he’s upset, you’ll see hair on the back of their neck, ears go up, look more aggressive and bark in a high shrill,” Cooke says. But it’s completely different body language when he’s playful, and barking a squirrel up a tree.

But in your case – if there are no strange noises,  new people on your doorstep, or any thing that looks like fun prey, Cooke says your dog is likely barking to get some attention. He recommends ignoring the bark until it stops – and then paying attention to your pooch. “Don’t react in the moment –  it’s like a kid in a cereal aisle,” he laughs. “If you cave in the moment, they know they’ve got you.”

“Dogs spend a lot of time studying our actions – they watch us and try to figure out what relationships they can build. So they start to figure out if they do this the focus can be all about me.” Your canine pal LEARNS quite quickly that when he barks, it gets your attention off THE television and onto HIM.  Cooke says he had a client who works from home, and every time she answered the phone, the dog would start barking. “That sounds funny – but if you’re trying to conduct a business, it’s embarrassing.”

It’s best, he says, to bring a dog behaviorist into your home, so you can be sure. “Every case is going to be different, but you’ve got to get the incessant barking under control. Even for dog lovers, that’s going to get annoying quick.”

Give your dog all the love and attention he deserves – but do it on your terms, when he’s silent.  “That way he’s getting your attention, but he’s not in control. Everyone wins.”

Follow Amberly McAteer on Twitter, and for more reading: Dogs are people tooMy rescue dog is perfect – How long will the honeymoon last? and Science confirms it: Your dog’s emotions are written all over its face