Nov 6, 2023 - Technology

Study: U.S. military members' personal data being sold by online brokers

Members of a military honor guard marching in Washington, D.C., in October 2023.

Members of a military honor guard marching in Washington, D.C., in October 2023. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sensitive, highly detailed personal data for thousands of active-duty and veteran U.S. military members can be purchased for as little as one cent per name through data broker websites, according to a new study published on Monday by Duke University researchers.

Why it matters: Researchers warned that the data can be easily obtained and used by malicious actors to target current and former military personnel, their families and acquaintances with a myriad of schemes, including blackmail and misinformation campaigns.

  • The data about military personnel purchased as part of the study included full names, physical and email addresses, health and financial information and details about their ethnicity, religious practices and political affiliation.
  • In some cases, the information also included whether the person owned or rented a home, was married or had children. The children's ages and sexes were accessible, too.

How it works: As part of the study, the researchers contacted 12 data brokers about purchasing information on military personnel.

  • The researcher found that many of the brokers lacked controls on who could purchase the data or regulations to ascertain the intended uses for the information.
  • In making their purchases, the researchers were able to narrow down their data selections to personnel in Maryland, Virginia, or the District of Columbia.
  • In one data set, the results showed service members living near military installations including Virginia's Quantico and Fort Walker, formerly known as Fort AP Hill, and North Carolina's Fort Liberty, formerly known as Fort Bragg.
  • Thousands of data brokers, many of which are based in the U.S., collect and sell data on millions of people every year.
  • The multi-billion-dollar industry collects data on virtually every American, primarily through public records or other businesses — such as mobile app companies and credit reporting agencies — collecting data on their customers and selling it.

By the numbers: The researchers bought data on up to around 45,000 military personnel for between $0.12 to $0.32 per record.

  • They also bought data belonging to 5,000 friends and family members of military personnel.
  • Larger data purchases of over 1.5 million service members were available for as little as $0.01 per record from at least one broker the researchers contacted.

The big picture: The researchers called on Congress to pass a comprehensive privacy law and for regulatory agencies like the Federal Trade Commission to develop rules to govern military personnel data purchases.

Thought bubble: The report is especially concerning given nation-state adversaries and governments are also interested in buying information from data brokers.

  • Although brokers typically collect and sell information about a wide range of Americans, international spies are likely to find unique value in data sets focused on military personnel for their operations targeting classified U.S. sources.

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