While recent news reports have focused on the NSA‘s PRISM program and the government’s use of personal data to detect terror threats, a recent news report sheds new light on the massive commercial business of collecting and selling personal data.

CBS News recently broadcast a special investigative report regarding data brokers who collect personal information about you and sell it to other commercial entities.  The amount of data being collected is staggering, with complete dossiers being compiled on millions of people including purchase histories, buying preferences, on-line browsing history, and even medical and prescription drug information.  The report highlighted the fact that every time you access a website it is more than likely that there are many other entities monitoring and recording your activity on that site for information that they package and sell to someone else.

This quote from the story says it all: “No one even knows how many companies there are trafficking in our data.  But it’s certainly in the thousands, and would include research firms, all sorts of Internet companies, advertisers, retailers, and trade associations.  The largest data broker is Acxiom, a marketing giant that brags it has, on average, 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans.”

In today’s world filled with technology gadgets, nearly everyone is connected to the internet in some way or form. The amount of data we voluntarily give up and put out there makes it easy for these companies to data mine. (Ever completed an online quiz? You just had your preferences and responses collected for marketing purposes).

Think about all of the websites you visit.  Some ask you to fill out questionnaires about your demographics and personal history, and others ask for your opinions, political views, likes and dislikes (Facebook).  Who you interact with is tracked, along with the photos you upload that have geo-cache information which disclosed when and where it was taken.  Credit card purchase information is a free-for-all, and you are even tracked regarding where you are at every moment of the day based on pings from cell phone towers.

If these data brokers have the capability to collect this mountain of information on you, then you can be sure that foreign intelligence agencies have this same capability, and if you have cleared access to classified information that they want then these are some of the ways they can target you to get it.  Operations security (OPSEC) has always been a key watchword in the security business since the Cold War days, but with all of the ways to track and collect information on you now, it is even more important than ever to stay alert and practice OPSEC in everything you do, be it in public, on the internet at home or work, and while using your cell phone.

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Marko Hakamaa served in various military police positions with the United States Army worldwide for 22 years before retiring in 2006 as a Master Sergeant. Afterwards, he transitioned into the civilian workforce as a contractor background investigator for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) before entering civil service as a Security Specialist in 2009.