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AskEraser: Privacy Potential
by
Posted On January 3, 2008


As web searching becomes ever more common in all aspects of our lives, the issue of our online privacy, or lack thereof, is an increasing concern. Searches and visits can be, and usually are, tracked and logged by any website. The information recorded can include a user’s IP address, the previous URL visited, the browser and operating system used, information in cookies set by that site, and search terms used. While none of this information can necessarily identify a specific user, the August 2006 release of AOL search data (see the NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=17374) showed that some personally identifiable information may be extracted from just a series of search queries.

On Dec. 11, 2007, Ask.com (www.ask.com) introduced AskEraser as one way to help combat concerns with searching privacy. It gives searchers the ability to choose whether or not to preserve their own privacy when searching Ask. By default, it is not turned on, but the AskEraser link is featured in the upper right-hand corner of Ask pages. Users can click that link for the option to turn AskEraser on. AskEraser is available on the main U.S. Ask.com site and at the U.K. version (www.uk.ask.com).

While most search engines (including Ask) have previously stated that they will not keep search log data for longer than 18 months, AskEraser gives users the ability to have their data deleted sooner than that. Patrick Crisp, a spokesman for Ask.com, said that "with AskEraser, we’re in a very real sense laying down a strong industry ‘marker’ that we expect others will follow."

With AskEraser turned on, all Ask cookies are deleted from the browser and one new cookie is set, which only tells Ask that AskEraser is enabled. "Within hours" of a search being run, AskEraser promises that the search activity will be deleted from its log files. Once that deletion has occurred, Ask no longer has any record of those specific searches. The information deleted includes the following:

  • The IP address of the computer being used
  • Cookies containing user ID or session ID information
  • The text of the search query

Older search activity from before the launch of AskEraser or from searches run without an enabled AskEraser will be retained in the logs for 18 months after the search was run.

This is not a simple process. Note that since the concept was first announced in July (www.irconnect.com/askj/pages/news_releases.html?d=123324), it took Ask months to implement it. Part of the difficulty is that logs are automatically recorded for all searches, and getting specific search activity deleted requires additional actions from the search company. This is also why the deletion from the log files takes several hours and does not happen right away.

The Exceptions

Of course, there are exceptions. By no means does AskEraser create a completely anonymous web browsing session. All other servers beyond Ask’s can still track visit information. In addition, some information is passed to Ask’s advertising partner, Google, so that the text ads displayed are connected to the search query.

At first glance, this seems to defeat the whole purpose of deletion of search activity. If Ask deletes it but has to pass all of that information to Google’s ad servers, what privacy is gained? The difference is that all of the information that Ask would gather is not necessarily passed on to the Google ad servers. Unfortunately, Ask cannot comment on the specifics of which data is transmitted to Google. Even so, it is obvious that it would need to pass the query itself to be able to get ads connected with the query keywords. It also seems unlikely that there would need to be any passing of IP address or cookie information. Until either Google or Ask is willing to release more information about what data is passed, users should probably assume that Google ad servers are gathering at least some level of data, but not necessarily more than that which would be gathered from visiting any site that displays Google ads.

Two other unusual exceptions that Ask mentions in its About AskEraser page (http://sp.ask.com/en/docs/about/askeraser.shtml) are for critical technical issues and for a legal request from law enforcement. In the event that search activity data is need "to solve a critical technical issue … search activity data may be retained for a longer period. At the time of technical resolution all search activity data of AskEraser users that was retained will be deleted." As to the legal requirements, "even when Ask Eraser is enabled, we may store your search activity data if so requested by law enforcement or legal authority pursuant to due process." Both of these situations could occur at any other website. At least Ask is upfront about stating the possible exceptions.

AskEraser has also been criticized by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and other privacy advocates (see www.epic.org/privacy/ask/EPIC_%20AskEraser.pdf) for several perceived flaws, which the groups see as correctable. The complaints include the use of a cookie to keep AskEraser enabled and the inclusion of a time stamp within that cookie. Also, in the exceptions for court-requested tracking, Ask should alert that user that AskEraser is not functioning.

One other cookie-related issue relates to Ask users outside of the U.S. and the U.K. Such users can go into the Ask preferences to specify that they wish to use Ask.com rather than another international version, but if they then turn on AskEraser, it will erase the cookie that remembers that preference. So, AskEraser does not appear to be easily available to those users until it is enabled on the other international sites.

The Privacy Alternative

The recent emphasis from several search engines on searcher privacy in the last few years is in contrast to the opposite recent emphasis on search histories and personalized search. Ask introduced MyJeeves (now known as MyStuff) in September 2004 (http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=16364). Other search engines soon followed (http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=16219) with a variety of search history features.

No numbers are available for the percentage of searchers who log in and enable the tracking of their search histories. Nor is Ask sharing any numbers of active AskEraser users. Based on the time that each system has been available, it is likely that many more searchers use Ask’s MyStuff than AskEraser. Crisp notes that Ask is "happy with the usage of MyStuff" and that it "know[s] that users who are using it really love it."

AskEraser and MyStuff demonstrate how a search engine can offer users options in both directions. Those who wish to have more information tracked and recorded for their own use can log in, enable MyStuff, and be able to view their own prior searchers. For those more concerned with privacy, "AskEraser is designed for that subset of our users who would like more control over their data," says Crisp.

For searchers who have personal or business reasons to keep their searching as private as possible, AskEraser offers a tool to help keep such information out of search engine logs. While it does not yet offer full anonymity of searching, it is one more new attempt to give users more choices in protecting their online privacy.


Greg R. Notess is the internet columnist for ONLINE and the author of Teaching Web Search Skills (www.notess.com/teaching) and SearchEngineShowdown.com.

Email Greg R. Notess
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