Erase Your Search Tracks

Posted by: Rob Hof on December 11, 2007

Most people probably don’t realize that their online searches are tracked by search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. With a new feature called AskEraser, Ask.com is hoping to give people control over the privacy of their online searches. It’s a real issue for some people, especially given the uproar that ensued last year when AOL let slip search data from 650,000 users, some of which got tied to specific individuals.

AskEraser, launching on Tuesday, will let people delete records of their future search queries from Ask.com’s servers. That includes the user’s IP address and the text of the search queries. However, search query info will continue to be sent to Google, which runs ads on Ask. (There’s much more detail at Search Engine Land.)

As search engine expert Danny Sullivan has noted, there are many other places your searches can be tracked, such as by your Internet service provider. But this is a positive move for people concerned with their privacy.

Assuming many people are. And that’s doubtful at this point, as even Ask CEO Jim Lanzone points out. “For most people, the issue doesn’t rise to the level of taking steps to protect their privacy,” says Lanzone. “I don’t believe the majority of people will use it.” One reason is that personalized features such as bookmarks won’t be available when AskEraser is turned on.

So why is Ask bothering with AskEraser? To gain an edge on rivals such as Google, which are perceived by some to be growing into a fearsome data repository? I asked him. Lanzone says this isn’t a competitive move, though I find that hard to believe. But in an era when it seems like our every move is tracked online, giving people a choice to opt out from an activity that inherently contains very personal and often sensitive information is at least a step in the right direction.

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Reader Comments

holly patrick

December 12, 2007 08:07 AM

I am very pleased with the fact that you are now able to delete search results,not everyone wants their personal searches posted for everyone to see.

john

December 12, 2007 10:07 AM

Yahoo/google/msn, etc. serve you and other site visitors ads in their email system or on web browsers by watching what you buy, what you search for on the net. This is a privacy violation by any means.

Imagined being followed when you go to walmart or home depot by advertisers so that they can offer you to buy their laundry detergents or light bulbs? Would you be upset? Privacy violations on the web is no different than when it's done in real life.

I now only use on my isp web email system for serious transactions. No web based emails. I wonder if Ask.com will offer an web based email services that will actualy respects peoples privacy concerns?

Suzan

December 12, 2007 11:17 AM

I was excited to read your piece, "Erase Your Search Tracks," because my web developer husband maintains to his students at the Corcoran School of Art & Design in Washington, DC, that ISPs can track their every move on the web. He was less than impressed by AskEraser, saying:

"Actually this is hype. They still have to maintain a history for law enforcement purposes, plus the ISP still has the opportunity to record requested searches independent of what Ask.com does. Bottom line: Once you enter data anywhere and submit, it is recorded permanently somewhere."

David Andersen

December 12, 2007 12:59 PM

Sure, an ISP can track searches, but WHY would they (outside of law enforcement requests which are rare) and WHO is posting them for all to see? This is paranoia! 99.9% of us are not important enough for anyone else to care about searches. Get over yourself.

Marie of Roumania

December 12, 2007 06:44 PM

Suzan - search engines track people's searches because that becomes a source of salable marketing information, as well as a source of research. there is no law enforcement requirement to do so -- although search engine companies or ISPs have to respond to subpoenas like everyone else for information that they actually do have.

Also, your husband overstates the case, just as David Anderson understates it. It's not that information is recorded permanently, but that it could be, and that it could be badly misinterpreted. Law enforcement folks --- and juries --- have treated logs of activities emanating from a computer as proof positive of wrongdoing, sometimes making unwarranted leaps of logic to do so.

Still, this is just a marketing gimmick by Ask.com. If you're concerned, limit your use of search engines (i.e., don't use gmail & google), and delete your cookies regularly. It doesn't matter for most people.

Ryan

December 12, 2007 08:57 PM

Completely agree with David Andersen--get over youselves. Why would you care who knows what you search for online unless you're planning on doing something illegal with the information you find? You can tap my phone, examine my search queries, and read my emails--I've got nothing to hide.

Marie, excellent points (except the part about David understating the case).

John, there is no privacy violation here. Google and Yahoo are very clear about the fact that they record user behavior, and if you use either search engine you do so at your option. I fail to see how this could be considered a privacy violation. That would imply that Google and Yahoo are running illegal operations. Show me what law prohibits their activities.

If the people who complain about Google only realized how much Google has improved their lives, they would probably drop their objections. Google makes so many products and services available to you free of charge either directly or indirectly that complaining about unfounded privacy concerns is like biting the hand that feeds you. Have you ever used Google Maps, Adsense, Adwords, Earth, Finance, Picasa, Gmail, or any of Google's other services? How much have you paid to use them?

Google adds billions of dollars of value to the economy each year and only asks that it be able to record an anonymous individual's search for flat screen TVs. Doesn't that seem like a fair trade?

JBM_thestateofaffairs

December 12, 2007 10:15 PM

Yes Google has fantastic technology that has become THE essence of information exchange. Yes, Google is clear that they archive and proactively search user input. This does not make their policy ETHICAL, and why should users worry? A significant reason is that any archived information can be hacked and misused. Google has the user's search information, their IP, thus their identity, and by looking through this information Google employees can determine what one is doing in life, why, what one's motives are, on down the line. They are also constantly trying to figure out ways of learning these things about the user. Google is a 24x7 detective watching our lives. And their information can also be stolen by those with even lesser morals.

john

December 13, 2007 03:13 PM

John here again..
Again, Yahoo/google/msn, etc. serve you and other site visitors ads in their email system or on web browsers by watching what you buy, what you search for on the net.

If it's not privacy you are worried about, then, you better be worrying about your personal data falling into the wrong hands.

Question for all of you. What does a thief needs to open a credit card under your name? Anyone? I'll tell you.
He/she needs your full name, address, license #, ss#, etc, which all of these persoanl info are saved on servers/browsers, etc. And, I know the search engines like google, msn, yaho, have and will never have a true fool proof way to remove selected data that are very personal such as ss#. ID theft is a huge problem now and will be forever.

With all the online banking, bill paying, etc, that some of us do online (though very convenient), I would definetely worry.

If you ever been a Identify theft victim like I am, you would also be worry. Someone opened an online bank account under my name. I wonder how that happened? I'm very worried about this but I guess that's just me.

Mark

December 21, 2007 03:31 AM

Maybe in America no-one has issues with their searches being recorded. But in some other countries, various law-enforcement agencies with dubious motives can make life very unpleasant for those who happen to be interested in topics they deem to be anti-social or extremist (such as democracy or breast cancer).

If you have nothing to hide, then you probably lead a very boring life - even in America. Do you want Google telling your wife what you bought her for Christmas? Visa already did that to me once.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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