Comcast faces privacy suit

Comcast said it will fight a US$1 billion class-action lawsuit brought by a Michigan man charging that the company violated the privacy of at least 1 million of its Internet customers last winter.

The suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan on behalf of Jeffery Klimas of Royal Oak, Mich., charges that the Philadelphia-based cable TV and Internet service provider illegally collected the Web-surfing habits of its users from December 2001 to February 2002.

Comcast denied the charge in a statement e-mailed to reporters this morning.

The suit grows out of an incident last February when Comcast drew the ire of privacy experts and of U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) after revealing it was collecting the surfing habits of its customers.

Comcast President Stephen B. Burke said in a statement at the time that the cable company had collected and stored IP and Web address information for about six weeks. He added the information was "never connected to individual subscribers." The statement said the information has been purged in the interest of privacy.

In its current statement, Comcast repeated its assertion that it never identified users.

"Comcast respected the privacy of our high-speed Internet subscribers and has not in any way compromised their privacy or linked Internet usage data to personally identifying information about any specific subscriber," the company's statement reads.

But Klimas' attorney, Steven Goren, rejected that statement today.

Goren said Comcast is claiming that it only tracked data according to IP address and not by specific names.

Goren said it's important that companies be stopped from being able to say that because a name is not attached to a specific piece of data that therefore that data doesn't identify an individual.

He said that would be like the phone company saying it did not track individual data by actual name only by telephone numbers. He said IP addresses are personally identifiable numbers.

"I am not given much solace by the fact that they did not happen to run the software program that would have linked the names to the numbers before being caught," Goren said.

In the suit, Goren asks that the company be forced to pay $100 per day for each violation of privacy or $1,000 per customer, whichever is higher. He alleged that at least 1 million customers are included, so the damages could reach as high as $1 billion before lawyers' fees are factored in.

Goren said once the suit is served on Comcast, the case will enter the discovery phase. He said it would probably be several months before the case is resolved.

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