Ask.com plans to make it easier for users of its search engine to cover their tracks.
Ask.com will add a new feature to its web portal later this year called AskEraser, which will let users perform anonymous searches.
When AskEraser is turned on, the website will not retain the data it typically stores during a search, said Patrick Crisp, an Ask.com spokesman. "We will allow users to select a privacy setting that says 'I do not want you to retain my data at all'," he said.
If AskEraser is not turned on, the site will store the search query, the IP (Internet Protocol) address and some cookie information from the user, as well as the URL the user visited before coming to Ask.com.
Search engines like Ask.com say that they retain this sort of information in order to improve their sites, but this practice has become controversial, with privacy advocates worrying that the data could be leaked or misused.
Last year, AOL researchers inadvertently disclosed data on about 650,000 of searches made on the company's website. New York Times reporters were able to track down one of the searchers, based on the information contained in the AOL database.
Bowing to pressure, Google recently announced that it would make the data it stores about its users anonymous after 18 to 24 months.
Ask.com, which is owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp., said it plans to implement a similar policy and will no longer link searches to IP addresses after a period of 18 months. That policy will be implemented by year's end, Crisp said. "We are eliminating the possibility of someone associating those queries with the person who made them."
AskEraser will be available on the Ask.co.uk and Ask.com websites by the end of 2007. It will roll out to other markets next year.