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7/20/2007
04:27 PM
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Ask.com Plans Anonymous Search

AskEraser will provide Ask users with privacy controls that will prevent their searches from being retained on the company's servers.

Ask.com wants to forget your searches. The search engine company said Thursday that it plans to offer its users a new privacy tool to keep their searches from being stored.

When deployed toward the end of the year, AskEraser will provide Ask users with privacy controls that will prevent their searches from being retained on the company's servers. Ask's search results pages will include a privacy indicator to confirm search anonymity.

In making this commitment, Ask is promising users greater control of the data they generate than any other major search engine. But search anonymity isn't entirely unprecedented. In June 2006, metasearch engine Ixquick.com said it would begin deleting personal search details from its server logs.

Search histories comprise searches tied to a search engine personal account and are distinct from Web server log information. Web server logs also include a record of searches tied to an IP address, which may or may not be easily associated with an individual.

Google gives users with Google Accounts a choice of whether or not they want to see search results that have been personalized based on their search histories, but the company does not offer any way to prevent searches from being recorded in its server logs. That's what Ask plans to allow.

"We'll immediately scrub it," said Doug Leeds, head of development at Ask. "We'll probably do a quick check for bot traffic, so we can block bot IP addresses. Everything else would be erased. If you were a bot ... you wouldn't be able to get to the Ask.com page. For everybody else, you'd be able to go completely anonymously."

Completely anonymous may be a slight overstatement: According to the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington-based public policy advocacy group, "Under current law, any governmental entity can require any service provider (telephone company, ISP, cable company, university) to immediately preserve any records in its possession for up to 90 days, renewable indefinitely."

Thus, Ask may be required by law enforcement authorities to stop deleting data associated with someone under investigation. And recent calls from the U.S. Department of Justice to retain data for longer periods may lead to legislation that further limits search anonymity.

Nonetheless, Ask's decision to give users control over their search data was welcomed by the CDT. "We're extremely pleased to see a new breed of innovative, competitive tools that allow users greater control over their personal information and online experiences," said CDT deputy director Ari Schwartz in a statement.

Leeds believes providing search anonymity won't affect Ask's online ad business, "given the small number of users who we think this will be interesting to."

Ask also said that it planned to adopt a new data-retention policy to disassociate all user searches histories with IP address and cookies information after 18 months.

Reports of the death of privacy may have been premature. Responding to pressure from European Union government officials, Google recently said it would anonymize server log information after 18 months. It also reduced the amount of time it keeps HTTP cookies, allowing them to expire after two years of inactivity.

"At the end of the day, what this is all about is trust," said Leeds.

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