Category: Technology

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.

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Can you demystify the privacy laws around Facebook? What are we actually signing up for?

Sarah Pearse in Vancouver, B.C. asks: “Please de-mystify the privacy laws around Facebook.  Specifically, what are we actually signing up for when we skip those lengthy Terms & Conditions? What are they tracking when our computer is on?” Shane Dingman, The Globe’s technology editor, says, “First point: Read the terms of service.  That is important.” Dingman explains:

If you wonder why you should, let me refer you to my favourite site on the Internet: Terms of Service: Didn’t Read.

What these guys do is dig into the terms of service and highlight any of the common privacy and data issues that users might care about. For instance, TOSDR found that Facebook uses cookies to track you across websites (like a lot of web services do).

Another irritating thing is Facebook’s TOS makes you agree to a “Very broad copyright license on your content… the copyright license does not end when you stop using the service unless your content has been deleted by everyone else.”

Also, “Facebook automatically shares your data with many other services: Facebook automatically shares your information with Bing, Pandora, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, Clicker, Scribd, and Docs, unless you manually opt-out.”

Some people don’t like some of that, but it’s in the terms of service.

That said: I’m afraid I can’t offer you a binary answer about the question of whether this abides by our privacy laws because of the way we our government polices the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (the federal privacy law that most directly covers what Facebook does with your personal data).

PIPEDA lets people complain about Facebook’s practices, and the Federal Privacy Commissioner has on several occasions looked into those allegations and formed an opinion. In 2013, 2012 and 2011 the Commissioner issued reports that covered complaints against Facebook: some were not well founded, but there was one case where the complaint was well-founded and was resolved in consultation with Facebook. (Read all about them yourself here.)

We asked the commissioner’s office, what would they do if those negotiations break down? Here’s the statement we got back:

“The Privacy Commissioner is an ombudsman and may make recommendations to an organization he has investigated. He does not have order making power and cannot impose fines. However, applicants may bring a PIPEDA section 14 application to have those recommendations enforced by the Federal Court. The applicant may also ask the Court to make other orders against the respondent organization. As well, the Commissioner can apply to the Federal Court for a hearing concerning any of the matters described in section 14  if the complainant consents.”

As far as we can tell, Facebook has never lost a PIPEDA case in Canada for its behaviour, though we do not know if there are any active investigations before the commission.

Lastly, Facebook is always tweaking its policies and its practices, and the PC does not police those changes. That raises the possibility that some new Facebook change is violating PIPEDA without our knowledge, after all it’s not like there’s a roving band of privacy cops kicking in the doors of social media companies and hauling perps downtown for questioning. The commissioner can investigate a situation even if there has been no citizen complaint, but his office is not required to do so.

If you want to know what the Commission tells companies like Facebook, here’s a list of the privacy principles they outline.

Read more about Facebook’s new community standards, and follow Shane Dingman on Twitter.


When will electric cars be the norm?

Reader Meg Venuto in Toronto asks, “When will electric cars be the norm?” Globe Drive columnist Peter Cheney has the answer:

Not soon, unfortunately. The gasoline-powered, internal combustion engine is a dinosaur – about 85 per cent of the energy in every liter of gasoline it burns is lost in the form of heat. An electric motor, on the other hand, is about 90 per cent efficient.

Despite the electric motor’s inherent superiority, the electric car won’t dominate the automotive world for at least another decade. The delay is due to two interrelated problems: infrastructure and power storage technology.

Batteries weigh a lot more than gasoline, and they take a long time to fill compared to a gas tank. Most drivers aren’t prepared to live with limited range and long recharge times. Several major companies are betting on fuel cell technology, which uses a hydrogen fuel cell instead of a battery to store electricity. The fuel cell can be recharged much faster than a battery, but there’s a major problem: there are only a handful of places that have a hydrogen refill station.

The best electric car on the market today is the Tesla Model S. It’s a brilliant machine, but it’s held back by its high cost and infrastructure issues – there are more than 100,000 gas stations in North America, but there only 120 Tesla Supercharger locations, high-powered charge points that allow you to charge a Tesla in under an hour.

Here we arrive at the crux of the electric car conundrum: the machine may be great, but it’s useless without a support system. And which support system should it be? Tesla-style stations where you can charge a battery, or hydrogen stations that let you top up your fuel cell?

Over the next few years, a VHS / Betamax struggle between competing standards will play out. And as this goes on, teams of scientists are working on storage solutions that will render both the battery and the fuel cell obsolete.

The cars that are on the market right now are limited by battery technology and limited charging stations. If there were more charging stations, more drivers would buy electric cars. And if more drivers bought electric cars, companies like Tesla could afford to build more charging stations – a chicken and egg problem.

So to answer your question: it will be years. But the electric car will win in the end.

Follow Peter Cheney on Twitter, and read his piece: What’s still killing the electric car?


Start your engines: Peter Cheney answered your driving questions

What are the best headlines to buy? Should you warm up your car? How can we improve the quality of driving in Canada?

Our national driving columnist Peter Cheney took the keys to the @Globe_Drive account and answered your questions live.

To see a recap of the Twitter takeover, click here

Missed the conversation? Tweet your questions with the hashtag #AskTheGlobe.  Our driving experts will be answering questions continually through articles on this site.

In the age of fast data sharing, why do online payments take 2-3 days to be processed?

On Twitter, reader @itsgifty writes, “In the age of fast data sharing, why does it take two to three days for bill payments made online to be processed?” The Globe’s financial services reporter David Berman found the answer:

The apparent slow pace of bill payments does stand out when you consider the lightning-fast speed of today’s electronic telecommunications. Indeed, two or three days of processing time conjures thoughts of mailed cheques, rubber stamps and pneumatic tubes.

The reason has nothing to do with old-school technology, though, and everything to do with a complex payments infrastructure that kicks in after you leave your bank’s website. In short, your payment doesn’t go immediately to your hydro or cable account, but rather winds its way through a system following a number of steps, each of which can take time.

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When satellite radio works so easily in the car, why do we have to aim our home TV dishes?

On Twitter, Dr. Jason Malinowski ‏ asks: “Why do we spend so much time aiming our home satellite dish, when the car satellite radio works irrespective of direction?”  Globe Technology editor Shane Dingman says the answer is all about bandwidth. “Have you ever tried to watch a YouTube video on your phone on a really old and slow wireless network? Like, an Edge 2G network?” It’s a fairly unbearable experience, he says, because of the bandwidth issue. “It takes forever, constantly buffering. The picture is often pixelated worse than normal and it could drop out altogether. The reason for that? Video signals are huge.”

Dingman says the same could be said for a satellite signal on an ill-adjusted TV:

The reason a satellite radio provider can put an omni-directional antenna in your car and send you signals from space while you race down the highway is all about bandwidth. SiriusXM, for instance broadcasts at about of 64 kilobytes/second, which is more than enough for you to receive a fairly consistent audio signal (weather can impact signal strength, as can a range of other factors).

By contrast, an HD video signal from your typical satellite TV provider needs about 25 megabytes per second: That’s about 400 times the data being transferred compared to radio. That’s why your satellite TV antenna needs to be fixed and directional: to ensure the strongest possible signal. Viewers expect a clear, constant stream of video from their service, and that means optimizing the connection between your house and the satellite.

Disclosure: BCE operates a satellite TV system, and also owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.

Follow Shane Dingman on Twitter, and for more of the latest technology news, reviews and advice, check out Globe Technology.