As previously discussed, Ask.com has launched AskEraser, a new service which promises to protect user privacy by, upon request, deleting users’ search activity from Ask.com servers.
Ask has put together quite an extensive help page explaining the details of AskEraser, including important caveats about the actual coverage of the service, which has some significant gaps. For example:
Where does AskEraser work and where does it not work?
AskEraser works if you come directly to Ask.com and perform a search within the Ask.com search box. If you access Ask.com through a search toolbar or an Ask search box on a third party site or application, Ask Eraser will not be enabled and your search activity will not be deleted. Search boxes embedded within Firefox, Internet Explorer and other browsers do allow AskEraser to be enabled.
What about data collected by third-party partners?
When enabled, AskEraser will delete your search activity from Ask.com servers. We cannot delete your search activity from the servers of third-party companies that receive your search queries to provide you with certain aspects of our search results (for example, current weather conditions, stock market summaries, etc.), sponsored search results and other product features.
Is there any reason Ask.com will stop deleting my search activity?
Even when AskEraser is enabled, Ask.com may temporarily retain your search activity data in the cases of:
- Critical errors or abnormal operation — if the data from AskEraser users is necessary to solve a critical technical issue emanating from internal sources (instability, etc.) or external sources (Denial of Service Attack, etc.), 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.
- Formal legal request — Ask.com must abide by the laws and regulations of local, state and federal authorities. 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. In such case, we will retain your search data even if AskEraser appears to be turned on.
The key exception with AskEraser is the 2nd one noted above: Ask will continue to pass user search queries to third parties in order to deliver ads. Who is that third party? Google.
So, while Ask’s motivation in launching AskEraser is to steal privacy-concerned searchers from Google, those users’ queries will end up in Mountain View anyway (although users will still have more protection than if they were searching on Google itself — with its cookie and Google Account in tow).
Is AskEraser the perfect solution? No. Is it a step in the right direction? For sure.
UPDATE: Recognizing the incomplete protection I note above, EPIC and other privacy advocates have sent a letter to Ask.com [pdf] urging them to change Ask Eraser, noting three key problems with their implementation of this feature: (1) using Ask Eraser requires an opt-out cookie, (2) the cookie creates a quasi-unique identifier that could be used to track users, and (3) Ask Eraser can be disabled without notice.