With Ask.com introducing the AskEraser — a switch that will stop the site from collecting information about a user — it’s worth checking in on the real state of play with the accumulation of data online.
As usual, the reality is very far from the public perception. Ask is far down on the list of sites that anyone who cares about privacy would be concerned about. It is hardly pervasive, so it doesn’t collect much data at all. And Ask doesn’t even run its own advertising system (it uses Google) so it doesn’t have much reason to collect data.
Of course, Ask is simply trying to gain marketing points by differentiating itself from Google, which to some embodies the erosion of privacy in the Internet world.
Google indeed collects a lot of data. It sees the bulk of the searches on the Internet and an increasing amount of other activity. And it obsessively files away most every scrap of data it receives. (Google will say that much of this data doesn’t include the personal identity of the user it is tracking. In fact, it actually has enough pieces of information to identify a lot of users if it really wanted to.)
Google, however, has been very reluctant to use all this data in its advertising business. One reason is that it has other information that solves its main problem: picking the right ads to show on each page. It uses what people are searching for on its search site and the content of other pages on which ads appear (including, of course, the content of messages displayed in Gmail).