Erasing Search Tracks

There are lots of things that people like to do on the Internet; read news and blogs, watch videos, shop, you name it. But the one activity that people do more than almost anything else is search. You need to use a search engine to find most of the content that you're interested in. But while you're out there using popular search sites like Google, is someone else tagging along for the ride? Would it be possible for someone else to put together your search queries and invade your privacy? The answer definitely seems to be yes. Last year AOL posted a database of search queries that users had done and it quickly became clear that it was not that hard to identify individuals based on groupings of searches. And of course this is child's play compared to the level of detail that the search engines themselves have about you and your searches. So what can a user concerned about search privacy do? There are anonymity tools such as the Tor network. And there are some third-party metasearch tools that provide a layer of privacy between users and search engines. But why don't the search engines themselves offer a privacy option?

AskEraserThere are lots of things that people like to do on the Internet; read news and blogs, watch videos, shop, you name it. But the one activity that people do more than almost anything else is search. You need to use a search engine to find most of the content that you're interested in.

But while you're out there using popular search sites like Google, is someone else tagging along for the ride? Would it be possible for someone else to put together your search queries and invade your privacy?

The answer definitely seems to be yes. Last year AOL posted a database of search queries that users had done and it quickly became clear that it was not that hard to identify individuals based on groupings of searches.

And of course this is child's play compared to the level of detail that the search engines themselves have about you and your searches. So what can a user concerned about search privacy do?

There are anonymity tools such as the Tor network. And there are some third-party metasearch tools that provide a layer of privacy between users and search engines. But why don't the search engines themselves offer a privacy option?

Well, now one does, but it isn't one of the big players like Google or Yahoo. This week Ask.com announced a new feature called AskEraser. According to Ask.com, when users enable AskEraser for a search, the engine will not save any record of that search session.

I tested this out, but of course there is no real way to know how well this is working. Search results on Ask.com seemed to be fine, though in some areas such as blog searches they were pretty behind the times. While AskEraser is enabled, none of the personalization capabilities of Ask.com will work.

One other potential gotcha of AskEraser is that some search information is still being saved. For example, in order to enable related advertisements, queries are passed along to, surprise, Google. Also, if law enforcement asks to track your searches, Ask.com will oblige even if it appears to you that AskEraser is turned on.

It will take some time to see how well AskEraser does, but I hope this is a first step in a trend that makes its way to the big players. Because now that the Internet has become such a big part of our lives, it would be nice to know that we can keep some things private if we choose to.