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How are you tracking us?

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Plexius
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How are you tracking us?

In my crusade against online tracking and advertising, I have noticed something troubling on the City of Titans website today. I can't verify for certain whether or not it's been around for a while, but this is the first I've seen it. I'll explain in greater detail, but let this intro be a sort of full disclosure that I have a strong bias in favor of privacy on the Web.

Also, this post is gonna be a doozy. Now then...

First, I noticed an image coming from the domain www.ascendantonline.com on every page of this site. The image's URL suggests that it's coming from a Piwik installation which is software used to gather website analytics. The image is a 1x1 pixel GIF which indicates that it's a simple tracking beacon. It doesn't seem to come with any traditional cookies.

However, the URL is different with JavaScript enabled. Normally---and probably for 99% of users---a script forwards all kinds of information (browser features, timestamps, and identifiers) about the user back to ascendantonline.com while fetching the image. The image is currently returning HTTP 500 which indicates a server-side problem. This, plus a Last-Modified date of "Sun, 14 Dec 2014 03:37:13 +0000" for the site, both suggest that the tracking is new.

But all of this avoids the big question: who runs ascendantonline.com? Obvious cues on the site point to Missing Worlds Media. A WHOIS lookup would confirm this. Interestingly, DNS shows that the email server for missingworldsmedia.com (MX record) points to the email server for ascendantonline.com (MX and A records). Given all of the above information, I'd say they've made a significant investment in this site, reasons for which are probably not public.

tl;dr

Missing Worlds Media is silently collecting (or trying to collect) information about your browser and likely your browsing patterns while you visit the City of Titans website. This appears to be new, and there seems to be no privacy policy indicating who is tracking you, how you're being tracked, what information is being collected, how the information is used, or if the information is shared or sold.

I posted this in the FAQ section as a question because I'd like a little transparency here. My question to Missing Worlds Media stands: how are you tracking us?

Doctor Tyche
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Ascendant Online was one of

Ascendant Online was one of the names we considered for City of Titans, which we had to pass on due to the tragic death of Tre "Asendant" Chipman. It would have looked like we were exploiting his death. I'd actually emailed him a few weeks before to tell him of the idea, and get his permission first.

Being that it was considered, we registered the domain. We use it mainly for file storage, our internal wiki, email, etc. If you go to the web address, you'll see a very old Phoenix Project holding page, with a very old test build of this forum on it. Piwik was actually uninstalled from there, as we weren't actually using the darn thing but had it installed for when we considered handling the t-shirt sales ourselves, to help track the sales records.

*update* or it should have been. I see it's still sitting there. *grumbles*

Technical Director

Read enough Facebook and you have to make Sanity Checks. I guess FB is the Great Old One of the interent these days... - Beamrider

Plexius
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Thanks for your reply. I'm

Thanks for your reply. I'm sorry to learn about Tre. My initial guess was that it might have been some offshoot project, but you were very clear about what it is and what it's used for. I appreciate it.

I also appreciate the info about Piwik. I just find it peculiar that these forums are phoning home to it using a Piwik URL. Has it been in place for a long time? Is any information it receives actually stored? I'm interested to know how pervasive the tracking is, assuming it's functional at all. I'm disappointed not to find a privacy policy for something like this.

Also, I apologize if I sound as though I'm up in arms about this. I'm not angry at you or MWM or anyone, really. I just think it's something important that appears to be working silently without any policy or obvious oversight. Personal information is a valuable and dangerous commodity in this day and age, and most websites take it for granted.

Any additional clarification would be appreciated, though according to your update that I just saw, it seems as though it's not supposed to be functioning at all?

EDIT: your != you

Doctor Tyche
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As far as I am aware, the

As far as I am aware, the database for it has not been active in months. I checked, and the module here was uninstalled. So, I am understandably concerned that the code is still in our footer.

Technical Director

Read enough Facebook and you have to make Sanity Checks. I guess FB is the Great Old One of the interent these days... - Beamrider

Plexius
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Thank you very much for your

Thank you very much for your quick replies. I'm not going to push the issue or harbor any suspicions. No hard feelings. :)

Still, I would welcome a privacy policy for any kind of tracking or analytics in the future. I shield myself well enough with an array of plugins, but in my opinion, there's no substitute for a clear policy on how a website collects and uses your information. Not everyone reads them, but if they don't, at least the onus is on them.

Doctor Tyche
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Ok, it's commented out now.

Ok, it's commented out now. As I said, it was to go with a commerce system we didn't wind up using, which included a privacy policy. since we didn't use the system, it never ws used. We will be using analytics when we do the forum change, and the privacy policy will be going up with it. Until then, letting the lawyers tackle that, since the privacy policy for a sales cart and for a forum are quite different.

Technical Director

Read enough Facebook and you have to make Sanity Checks. I guess FB is the Great Old One of the interent these days... - Beamrider