Ask to allow anonymous Web search

By using the new AskEraser tool, users will be able to set their privacy preferences so the search engine does not retain their Web search history.

Search site Ask is launching a new tool that will let people search the Web anonymously, the first major search engine to offer that functionality.

By using the new AskEraser tool, users will be able to set their privacy preferences so the search engine doesn't retain their Web search history. Users will be able to see what the privacy setting is on the search results pages.

AskEraser is expected to be deployed on in the U.S. and United Kingdom by the end of the year, and globally early next year.

For people who don't want to search anonymously, Ask will maintain the user search data for 18 months and then it will disassociate the search history from the IP address or cookie information. Cookies are small files stored on a computer so that the computer can be recognized when it revisits Web sites, enabling the site to remember the user's preferences for things like e-commerce and sites that require log-in.

"We'll have no way of figuring out how to associate the searches with a (particular) person," said Doug Leeds, head of development at Ask. "There will be no way for us to receive an IP address from a governmental agency and figure out what searches were done by that IP address."

The move by Ask, a wholly owned business of IAC, follows but exceeds steps taken by Google. Earlier this week, Google said it would set cookies on Web searches to expire after two years instead of in 2038. In practice, however, only a minuscule number of people will be affected by the change because if you visit Google even once in the next two years, the cookie will be renewed for another two years.

In March, Google said it would start anonymizing the final eight bits of the IP address and the cookie data after somewhere between 18 months and 24 months, unless legally required to retain the data for longer. Doing so effectively would enable someone to narrow the IP address down to 256 possible computers or users. That would be similar to obscuring the last digit in someone's street address.

The risks associated with Web search data were highlighted last August when AOL inadvertently exposed on the Internet the search history of more than 650,000 of its users.

Microsoft and Yahoo are also expected to improve their Web search privacy practices, according to the Financial Times.

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