Comcast shuts down tracking of Net users

Cable company's new server raises privacy concerns

February 14, 2002|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Cable giant Comcast Corp. backed away yesterday from a controversial and unprecedented new system that made it possible to track the Web-site visits of its nearly 1 million high-speed Internet customers.

Comcast, the nation's third-largest cable company, could record individual subscribers' Web surfing since launching its Internet network six weeks ago, the company said.

Yesterday, Comcast faced heavy criticism that it might use its new "caching server" - which stores information on popular Web sites and helps speed Internet traffic - in a way that would violate privacy and federal law.

Faced with a public relations - and perhaps legal - nightmare, Comcast said it would re-evaluate the system.

"We will stop storing this individual customer information in order to completely reassure our customers that the privacy of their information is secure," the company said in a statement.

The Philadelphia-based cable company provides high-speed Internet access to about 900,000 customers nationwide, with about 90,000 of them in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Harford and Howard counties.

Typically, Internet service providers, such as Comcast and America Online, use "caching servers" to collect aggregate information on top Web sites. But it would be unprecedented - and possibly illegal - for an Internet provider to record individuals' Web-site visits, experts said.

At AOL, "We don't track the personal Web activity of our members," said Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for the Dulles, Va.,-based company. "We believe we set the gold standard for privacy in the industry."

Local Comcast customers contacted yesterday expressed alarm about the potential for tracking, especially without notification from the company.

"It's the next level of Big Brother," said Martha Lessman Katz, who uses Comcast's Internet hookup at her Lutherville home. "I certainly wouldn't want them tracing where I go on the Web. I don't know why they would need that if not for the fact that they were going to sell that to somebody."

Comcast said Tuesday that it was tracking customers' Web visits as part of a technology overhaul that would save money and speed up the network, the Associated Press reported. The new technology funneled a customer's Web browsing through centralized Internet computers controlled by Comcast, the AP reported.

Yesterday, Comcast disputed that report, saying that the company had the ability to track individuals but that it had not used it and had no plans to do so.

"We collect information solely on an aggregate basis," said Dave Watson, an executive vice president for Comcast. "We never went into individual customer usage. That was not our intent. That was not our practice. All we've done today is removed any possibility that we'd do that in the future by bringing down those servers."

In its statement, Comcast said it had been storing the information temporarily.

"Comcast has not shared and will not share personal information about where our subscribers go on the Web, either for any internal purpose or with any outside party, except as required by law," the company said.

The software provider that developed the "caching server" for Comcast, Foster City, Calif.-based Inktomi, said yesterday that its customers determine the specific configurations of the server.

"We believe that Comcast's use of Inktomi's `caching' technology is a standard implementation, typical of the manner in which other networks use the technology," said Jill Reed, an Inktomi spokeswoman.

But the potential for a cable provider to track its customers' Web surfing alarmed experts, privacy advocates and consumers, who feared that Comcast would, at some point, sell consumers' browsing habits to advertisers.

Even more worrisome, some said, would be the availability of information that could be subpoenaed in criminal and civil cases.

"What isn't common is Comcast is apparently [able to] do this in a way that ties the [Web site] information to particular users," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, a nonprofit research group that studies civil liberties issues in new technology. "That's the mystery here: why they found it necessary to do this in a way that would allow them or the government or someone else to go back" and document a customer's Web visits.

The practice raises questions as to its legality under federal guidelines for cable regulation and subscriber privacy, Sobel said.

Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, raised similar concerns about the tracking practice's violating federal law in a letter he sent yesterday to Comcast President Brian Roberts.

"I believe that many consumers would be understandably concerned if our nation's cable operators begin to monitor Americans' use of cable systems for other services such as telecommunications services, including broadband access to Internet via cable modems," Markey wrote.

He said federal law prohibits cable operators from obtaining personal information from subscribers without "prior written or electronic consent."

After sending his letter, Markey applauded Comcast's response to "stop certain data gathering practices" and for "reiterating its commitment to consumer privacy."

Despite the cable company's assurances, one local Comcast Internet customer said he is taking no chances.

Robert E. Myers, who works from his home in Columbia, said he read about Comcast's new "cache server" in a trade journal. He immediately took steps to circumvent any tracking efforts, installing a package that erases a computer user's tracks.

"It bothers me immensely, as a matter of principle," Myers said.

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