Search firm Ask announced today that it will allow users to prevent their search requests from being recorded.
The new online tool, called AskEraser, allows users to immediately remove all traces of search queries, including deleting the information from Ask's servers.
"For people who worry about their online privacy, AskEraser now gives them control of their search information," said Jim Lanzone, chief executive of Ask.
"We take significant steps to protect any data that's stored in our servers, but for those people who want to take extra precautions AskEraser lets them take the issue completely off the table."
Other search engines retain information about queries automatically, but do delete the information after a certain period or at least anonymise that data for statistical analysis.
However, Deloitte has said it expects that there will be increasing resistance to the volume and depth of information that websites are capturing about consumers' online behaviour.
"People usually regard it as a good thing when a supplier knows them well. If a maitre d' guides us to our usual table, a shop owner knows the names of our kids, or a bartender prepares our favourite drink before we have even sat down, this is generally regarded positively. But the computers that underpin online services have vastly superior recall," said David Tansley, technology partner at Deloitte.
"While most use of behavioural data is likely to be innocuous, perception does not always tie in with fact. A few negative headlines about abuse of individuals' data may be sufficient for web users to demand that tracking be moderated or stopped altogether, even to the point where tracking is denied by default."
Tansley predicts that Ask's announcement pre-empts this increasing concern from some users. However, he goes on to warn that online companies should be careful not to over-react to the calls from a vocal minority, but rather consider the genuine concerns of a passive majority.
"Getting the balance right may prove difficult during 2008, not least because government regulation in some territories may force some websites to move in the opposite direction," he added.
"Consequently, actively researching consumers' preferences country-by-country, if necessary, may prove to be the most effective way of managing privacy concerns. This diligence may seem expensive, but could be cheaper than dealing with litigation, heavy-handed government regulation or public relations battles with lobbyists," saidTansley.
"It may also help companies to avoid costly tactical mistakes, such as serving up unwanted advertisements on social networking sites or even on mobile phones."
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