Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ask.com's Privacy Tool Tracks Users

With all the latest hype about the Ask Toolbar in the security community (see Related Posts below), Security Garden readers will not be surprised to learn that a coalition of privacy groups filed a complaint with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) 19 January 2008 against Ask.com. The complaint alleges that the Ask.com search engine history anonymization tool (AskEraser) could actually be used to track people rather than providing anonymity and protecting their privacy.

So, what in layman's terms is the complaint about? One might simply say cookies, but that would be a gross oversimplification. To begin with, not all cookies are bad (See Tea and Tracking Cookies). The problems are in the procedures and methods used by Ask.com's toolbar mechanism. Here are just a couple of examples copied from the Complaint (click the images to see a larger version):
Not that I have anything to hide, however, a "Persistent Identifier" that allows any government agency to track and monitor . . .
No regulation of the data collected . . .
Interesting. . .

From epic.com:

"Consumer Privacy Coalition Files FTC Complaint Against Ask.com
EPIC and five other groups filed a complaint (pdf) with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Ask.com is engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices with the representations concerning AskEraser, a search service that purports to protect privacy. Among the critical points highlighted by the consumer privacy coalition: (1) users must accept an AskEraser cookie and disable a genuine privacy feature in browsers that block cookies; (2) the AskEraser cookie is a unique persistent identifier that makes it easy for Ask.com, its business partners, and the government to track the activities of AskEraser users; and (3) Ask.com will disable the search delete feature -- the central purpose of the Ask Eraser service -- without notice to the user. The complaint follows a December letter (pdf) to Ask.com describing these security and privacy problems. (Jan. 19)"

Now, you tell me. Do you want to use a software that includes the Ask Toolbar, regardless of any changes purportedly made to the software? Not me. I'll stick with the tried and true, safe, honorable and ethical.

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