AskEraser : The Privacy Of Search Data On The Interent

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I read today about a new feature of the search engine Ask that is aimed consumers who are becoming increasingly concerned about their online privacy. AskEraser will allow users to opt for the deletion of personal search query data that would otherwise get stored on Ask’s servers.

It is not uncommon for search engines to store personal search data from users, but in an online culture that increasingly involves using search engines to quickly and effectively find desired content, users are becoming ever more concerned about the lack of privacy that comes with using them.

Advertising too plays a massive role on the internet and adverts on search results are no exception. With access to user data advertisers can better target their intended audience, meaning an increased return on the investment of advertising. In essence better placed adverts are more likely to generate sales, and on the basis of this stored user search data is a valuable commodity.

As search engines are becoming a necessity for more and more people this search data is ever present, and it is the misuse of this data by search engines that people are growing increasingly concerned about.

An extra concern has been highlighted with several high profile cases recntly where personalised search data has been requested by government institutions in civil law proceedings, challenging the existing privacy policy most search engines endeavour to abide by. This does raise the concern of how secure user data is, even when protected by a strict privacy policy.

In August 2006 AOL was also forced to publicly apologise after it released the search queries of more than 650,000 of its US subscribers to help in academic research. Users names were not released however the search queries released did contain personally identifiable data.

Facebook too recently came under fire when a new advertising system, discussed on The Shelf last month, led to over 50,000 complaints on privacy invasion from its users.

Such high profile cases can however lead to change. Recently Facebook altered its targeted adverts that were previously severed on the social network based on past purchases. This is now an optional service, and as such users can opt-out of the recieving such adverts.

Search engines too have are going to increasing lenghts to calm concerns of how personal search data is used. Over the past year the big players in the search industry have now confirmed they will delete search histories after a set period of time, ranging between a year and 18 months.

With this latest development, the launch of AskEraser, Ask is hoping that by giving users the chance to delete search query data almost immediately, (in contrast to market leader Google who waits 18 months), they will attract a new breed of users who are more concerned about their privacy online. By being the first search engine to physically erase information about a user’s searches from its servers Ask is certainly going where no engine has previously been, and is AskEraser demonstrates an innovative way to differentiate itself from other search engines.

According to internet measurement firm comScore, ‘Ask accounted for 4.7% of US searches during October. Google took the lion’s share with 58.5%, with Yahoo accounting for 22.9% and Microsoft for 9.7%.’ Whether the addition of this service will change those figures dramatically remains to be seen, and I for one remain sceptical.

My scepticism stems from major drawback to the service, and that is that Ask has just signed a five year agreement with Google to deliver ads alongside its search results. As part of the deal search data will be sent to Google in order to choose relevant ads, and Google is under no obligation to erase the data sent to it, regardless of the user’s AskEraser settings.

Google has also stated that it has no plans to implement such a tool in the future, so for now search data form search queries on Ask, for which ads are served, is still being stored by Google.

                    

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