Comcast Is Annoying Customers With Pop-Ups Telling Them to Upgrade Their Modem

The company insists that it means well, but there may be unintended consequences to sending pop-up notifications to customers.

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Jan 13 2016, 7:44pm

Image: Steven Depolo/Flickr

Comcast is sending pop-up alerts to select customers while browsing the web, telling them to upgrade their cable modem in order to "receive the full benefits" of their internet connection.

While Comcast insists that the pop-ups, images of which were published by Consumerist, are merely an educational effort designed to ensure that customers are running up-to-date, fully patched equipment, it's not unreasonable to want to be able to disable these pop-ups from interrupting your web browsing experience. The problem is, there's no official way to, say, go into your account settings to disable them.

Comcast's notification system, described in a 2011 white paper, uses a proxy server that sits in between the customer and their destination (such as motherboard.vice.com). Whenever Comcast needs to send its customers a pop-up notification (such as telling them it's a good idea to upgrade their modem), it serves a bit of Javascript via this proxy, resulting in the pop-up. It's the same system the company uses to serve those "six strikes" anti-piracy warnings you may have heard about.

Yes, you can merely X-out of the notification and go about your day, but where's the fun in that?

The best way to stop seeing these messages altogether is to route all of your traffic through a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. This encrypts the traffic between your computer and your destination, preventing Comcast from serving the pop-up notifications in the first place. You could also browse the web using the Tor browser bundle, which also encrypts your traffic and prevents the pop-ups.

When I spoke to Comcast about the issue earlier today, the company stressed that the pop-up notifications aren't some harebrained scheme to get people to ditch modems that they may already own for shiny new models they'd have to buy or rent from the company. "We are truly trying to ensure that our customers are getting the speeds that they're paying for and the performance that they deserve," Comcast Executive Director of Corporate Communications told me.

And that's all well and good, but when I spoke to Matthew Mitchell, a well-known security consultant, he explained to me that an unintended consequence of sending these pop-up notifications may be training consumers to be more accepting of random, potentially dangerous pop-ups. After all, who's to say that a hacker won't create his next malicious pop-up to look exactly like Comcast's?

"How do you know that message is really from your ISP?" Mitchell said. "Once you get customers used to seeing these messages" they may be less vigilant about potentially dangerous ones, he added.

So while Comcast's pop-up notification system may have the most noble of intentions, the episode does provide a helpful reminder of being vigilant about your online travels.