Controversy Over Caching - InformationWeek
02:28 PM

Controversy Over Caching

Comcast bows to pressure and agrees to stop recording the IP addresses of its high-speed Internet customers.

Comcast Corp. this week bowed to pressure and agreed to stop recording the IP addresses of its high-speed Internet customers. Some say Comcast could have sidestepped the trouble altogether had it been more up front with customers.

The controversy began after a customer noticed his Internet queries were being redirected through proxy servers in Comcast's network. He correctly concluded that Comcast had begun using a caching system capable of logging customers' activity and spread the word. At issue was Comcast's installation of caching technology in its network six weeks ago to optimize performance by determining which Web pages customers visit the most and then caching them for faster response times.

Comcast is using Inktomi Corp.'s caching technology. When set at the default configuration--which was the case at Comcast--the system logs customers' IP addresses and the IP addresses and URLs of the Web pages they visit, then purges the data after no more than 36 hours. Customers' IP addresses were never matched with names or other personal information, Comcast execs say.

Nevertheless, customers objected vigorously, and Comcast has suspended all caching until it can reconfigure the equipment to record just the addresses and URLs of requested pages, not the addresses of customers. The company also said it will appoint a chief privacy officer to monitor privacy matters.

"It's very important for us to relate to our customers that we've always respected privacy and weren't using the information in any way that would compromise an individual's privacy," says Mitch Bowling, Comcast's VP of operations and customer care. Comcast will be able to achieve the same improvements in network performance once caching resumes with the customer IP address-logging feature turned off, he says.

The fact that Comcast can do so without logging customers' addresses "raises the question of whether there was ever a legitimate service-based reason for collecting them," says David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

Caching is essential to large ISPs, says Comcast Internet customer Dan Cottler, an independent consultant in Cherry Hill, N.J. "You can't keep prices down and permit hundreds of thousands of copies of the same data to fly through the expensive peering points constantly." Still, Cottler says ISPs need to "be more up front about the work that goes on behind the scenes of an ISP."

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