Hats off to Ask.com for its new hands-off - or eyes-off - search option.
The AskEraser feature will prevent the search company from saving your data in its logs.
Turning it on is just a click away. Select AskEraser at the top-right of any Ask.com page, and you're prompted to enable the feature, which deletes within hours all of your search data activity, including your search terms, your IP address, and any session identifier. Ask.com cookies disappear from your browser as well, save one that reminds the site that you're using AskEraser.
"It is certainly a large leap in the right direction," says Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a consumer advocacy nonprofit in Washington, DC.
It's a good move, and one I'd like to see more companies follow, but it doesn't afford complete privacy protection. Ask.com sends your search data to some other companies for services (such as Google for text ads on results pages), and privacy experts say that those other companies can save your data according to their own privacy policies. (Ask didn't respond to my queries about the topic.)
The other major search engines are taking positive steps. Last summer, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo all announced that they would anonymize their saved search data after a period of time so that those searches couldn't be tied to a particular person.
Starting in January, Google will anonymize search logs after 18 months by pulling out the cookie-based unique IDs and clearing the final part of stored IP addresses. The action still allows for divining your general location but breaks the specific link between you and your searches. Beginning in the first half of 2008, Microsoft will wipe the entire IP address after 18 months. And, come summer, Yahoo will clear the full address after 13 months.
But AskEraser puts Ask.com on top when it comes to search engine privacy - and even if you don't enable AskEraser, Ask.com says that it will delete all search-activity log data after 18 months. Of course, the most important thing about a search engine is whether it finds what you're looking for. When we put the engines through their paces last April (see "Search Engine Shoot-Out"), we found that Ask.com was decent, but overall it didn't do as well as Microsoft, Google, or Yahoo. Nevertheless, AskEraser makes it worth your while to see if Ask.com delivers the results you need.