Ask.com's privacy "eraser" misses a few spots

The search engine launches a useful but flawed effort to keep your search queries secret.


Farhad Manjoo
December 11, 2007 10:41PM (UTC)

The first problem with AskEraser, the privacy feature that the search engine Ask.com unveiled today, is its name. An eraser deletes what you've already done. That's not how AskEraser works. When you flip it on, it will have no effect on your previous Ask.com searches. Instead, AskEraser deletes the future -- turning it on tells the search engine not to save any queries you make from now on.

Helpful? Perhaps, considering that other search engines keep your data. Every time you use an engine, the site logs your Internet address, your search query, and details from "cookies" the engine may have set on your computer.

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Google says that it keeps this data for 18 months after your search, after which it makes the information anonymous -- that is, it scrubs its logs of your computer's address and other personally identifiable data.

Microsoft also makes log data anonymous after 18 months, while Yahoo does so after 13 months.

Ask.com's new policy is a twist on these others. Under ordinary circumstances, if you conduct a search on the site, Ask.com will keep your data in its logs for 18 months, after which it will make it anonymous.

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But on the top right side of the site's home page you'll now see a link to AskEraser. Click that, then click Yes, and now you'll begin to surf on the down-low, Ask says: It will no longer log your search queries in any way at all.

Well, but there's an exception. Ask.com and Google are rivals, but they are also partners -- Google serves ads on Ask's site. To customize ads to people's searches, Ask.com passes your search queries on to Google. Thus even if you turn on AskEraser, your Ask.com search data may still be logged on Google's servers.

Ask.com, which is currently the fourth-ranked search engine in the nation, with about 3 percent of U.S. search engine market share, hopes that AskEraser will prompt searchers to convert to its engine -- and, in turn, will prompt rival engines to adopt similar privacy measures.

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Ask.com's competitors, though, say that they have no plans to change their ways. In several blog posts regarding its privacy policies, Google has offered lengthy explanations for why it needs to log search data.

Search logs improve the engine's performance, Google argues. Among other services, Google uses search log data to run its spell checker -- the system that asks "Did you mean: embarrassing?" when you type in "embarrasing" -- and to detect and fight spam, phishing, and other attempts at Internet fraud.

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More important, Google says that some laws actually compel it to keep search data for a period of time; in the U.S. and Europe, many recently passed and proposed anti-terrorism laws require that search engines retain data for law enforcement use.

Obviously there are some interpretive differences over these laws; Ask.com certainly believes it can freely delete search log data without running afoul of data-retention regulations. If search engine privacy is important to you -- and hey, why shouldn't it be? -- go over to Ask, turn on the Eraser, and go to town.


Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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