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We have a group who is using Ning which seems to allow us to have private discussions online.

However, one user discovered that the website scorecardresearch.com seems to be tracking our actions on Ning, here is a discussion:

http://creators.ning.com/forum/topics/scorecardresearch-what-is-it

Does anyone know more about scorecardresearch.com and if it is being used on other sites and what kinds of security or privacy concerns one should have when using Ning?

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4 Answers 4

The scorecardresearch call is a beacon used by ComScore for tracking activity of site users for the owners, a bit like Google Analytics.

Where Comscore differs from Google Analytics is that it also uses panels of people who have agreed to have all of their internet usage monitored, and provided information which can't easily be gleaned from raw server logs (age, earning power, etc).

Comscore add this demographic info to the raw stats (page views, time on site, etc) and extrapolate to provide reports for site owners of things like typical age profile of their users, earning power, site usage, etc. This information can then be used by the site in question when trying to sell advertising space, as media buyers generally tend to trust third-party data providers like ComScore ahead of a site's own internal numbers when it comes to traffic, user base, etc.

Regarding your privacy concerns, while it would certainly be possible for comscore to be sending the content of private discussions back to their servers and analysing the content therein, this would require them to tailor a specific analysis package to that particular site. Additionally, according to their site:

For web tagging, participating websites agree to deploy a special code throughout their sites. Again, no personally identifiable information is ever transmitted by, or linked to, the web tags.

So, while it's technically possible that they may be gathering some form of nefarious data, it's unlikely, so something I wouldn't be hugely worried by. That said, there have been issues in the past where they have used some less-than-savoury attempts to get as much user information as possible:

Ben Edelman, a Harvard researcher, alleges that there are cases where comScore software has been installed on users' computers without their knowledge. comScore admits that it was in discussion with DollarRevenue, a company known for distributing spyware. However, comScore says that no contract was ever signed, and that once it realized DollarRevenue was distributing comScore's software months later, it took steps to prevent the DollarRevenue-distributed software from sending data to comScore.
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You said:

Regarding your privacy concerns, while it would certainly be possible for comscore to be sending the content of private discussions back to their servers and analysing the content therein and users involved, this would require them to tailor a specific analysis package to that particular site. So, while possible, it's unlikely, so something I wouldn't be hugely worried by.

Ning has millions of high-value users. If there were ever a reason to "tailor a specific analysis package to that particular site", Ning would seem like a pretty good candidate.

In this regard, I find the speed with which Ning cut off the discussion on scorecardresearch.com noteworthy.

By the way, I don't mean for a second to insinuate that there's definitely something sinister going on at Ning. And at the end of the day, though, I guess the bad news is that we'll never know, 'cause they're certainly not going to spill the beans.

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Remember that when it comes to spying on users, tracking them, and violating their privacy rights, the Web is the big exception to almost any organization's ethics. Even Consumer Reports uses a whole host of unethical, user-hostile web tricks.

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I did a little research and it isn't specific to Ning.com. It is actually in the source code of the ShareThis.com widget. I discovered it when custom website I am working on started to hang on b.scorecardresearch.com. I've very tempted to write some JQuery that trashes it or sends them the big middle finger with each one of my page loads. If anyone wants a piece of that code, let me know. :)

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