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Is Russian Counterintelligence a Threat to the United States?

Updated on January 1, 2015

Overview: Russian Counterintelligence

The Russian counterintelligence apparatus has transformed into a resilient and complex structure since its conception under the former Soviet Union. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB served as the primary state security element throughout the Soviet Republics and was comprised of approximately 700,000 officers (Pike 1997, 1). The KGB was created to dismantle and prevent any domestic or foreign security threats and political dissent against the Soviet Union (Pike 1997, 1). Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation was able to “inherit…a significant intelligence capability” (FAS). The Russian intelligence community has the capability to employ human intelligence (HUMINT), imagery intelligence (IMINT), measure and signature intelligence (MASINT), and signals intelligence (SIGINT) to collect sensitive information targeting the United States (FAS). Once the KGB dismantled in 1991, these intelligence capabilities were reorganized and employed under, the SVR, the GRU, the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) and eventually the Federal Security Service (FSB) (FAS). Russia’s robust intelligence capabilities and counterintelligence service poses a significant threat to the national security of the United States and continues to increase its collection against the United States (Burger 2005). The FBI asserts “Russian intelligence operations against the United States have increased in sophistication, scope, and number, and are likely to remain at a high level for the foreseeable future” (FAS).

History of the Russian Counterintelligence Apparatus

Russian counterintelligence proves to be a constant and ever-changing threat to the United States government as well as the U.S. intelligence community. To detect and counter Russian espionage, American policymakers will need to achieve a higher level of clarity and insight into the Russian counterintelligence apparatus. The espionage techniques used by Russian counterintelligence have been improved over time and assist them in becoming further embedded within adversary nations. Exploring the Russian counterintelligence architecture and Russian espionage case studies will assist the U.S. government to detect and counter future Russian espionage missions.

Considering the history of Russia’s counterintelligence service is a premier factor to understanding the way they operate and how the U.S. can impede Russian embedment. Dr. Lowenthal helps to provide a greater understanding into the background of the Russian intelligence services and their transition from the KGB to the FSB. According to Dr. Lowenthal (2012), the KGB served as Russia and the Soviet Union’s initial counterintelligence service, organized into separate directorates (360). The First Chief Directorate and the Eighth Chief Directorate were responsible for fulfilling “foreign intelligence roles” such as counterintelligence, human intelligence (HUMINT) and signal intelligence (SIGINT) to gain sensitive, non-military knowledge on Russia and the former Soviet Union’s adversaries (360). The First Chief Directorate established sixteen separate departments that were located in numerous countries to collect intelligence (Pike, 1997). As the intelligence service transitioned and modernized upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, the foreign intelligence service reorganized into the External Intelligence Service (SVR) (Lowenthal 2012, 361). After the fall of the Soviet Union, Lowenthal asserts that Russia has heightened its intelligence collection over the past few years based on the recent arrests of sleeper cells and Russian agents in numerous countries across the globe (364). Lowenthal gives an overview of Russian intelligence history as well as their tactics for espionage such as sleeper cells, walk-ins, and HUMINT and SIGINT techniques (2012, 105). As the Russian intelligence history and architecture unfolds, it will provide the background needed to analyze Russian counterintelligence case studies. Russian subversion within the U.S. is increasing and continues to collect information on military capabilities, technology and missile defense plans. Appreciating the history, background, tactics and collection techniques of the former Soviet Union and Russia’s counterintelligence apparatus will help the United States “get a better handle on the Russian espionage threat” (Burger, 2005).


Robert Hanssen Case Study

The prominent Russian espionage mission that allowed Robert Hanssen to embed himself within the United States for over two decades will offer significant insight into why and how the Russian counterintelligence service was able to successfully infiltrate the U.S. for 25 years without being detected. The U.S. Department of Justice (2003) wrote an executive summary regarding the details of Robert Hanssen’s career within the FBI and his espionage activities (1). The report divulged three periods of time during Hanssen’s career where he delivered compromising information to the GRU and eventually the KGB, revealing military plans, numerous “human sources,” and specific information on “U.S. strategies for nuclear war” and military weapon systems (U.S. DOJ 2003, 1). Throughout his twenty-five years working for the FBI, Hanssen was able to leak thousands of classified documents to the GRU and the KGB for such an extended period of time without being compromised. The Robert Hanssen case study will take a closer look into the successes and failures of both the U.S. government as well as the Soviet/Russian counterintelligence services in an effort to detect and prevent such moles from taking place in the future. For example, the executive summary mentions the significance of establishing sound security policies to counter the Russian espionage threat such as background investigations and reinvestigations, polygraphs, cyber security, and policy regarding the appropriate handling of classified information (U.S. DOJ 2003, 4). Deeper research will offer insight into why Soviet/Russian tradecraft is so successful at penetrating the U.S. government without being compromised for an extensive period of time.

Is Russian Counterintelligence a major threat to the United States?

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Aldrich Ames Case Study

Aldrich Hazen Ames is another world re-known Russian spy who spent thirty-one years working for the Central Intelligence Agency. He started revealing classified information to the KGB in 1985 and was found guilty of espionage in 1994 (FBI). Ames spent most of his career analyzing the Russian intelligence apparatus and traveled overseas to recruit Russian intelligence members (FBI). From 1985 to 1994, Ames continued to secretly work for the KGB throughout his CIA career, compromising human sources and ongoing missions against the Soviet Union. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (2009), Aldrich Ames’ personal and financial life took a downward spiral around the same time he began corresponding with the KGB. Financial instability played a notable role in his decision to trade U.S. secrets for money. As Ames continued to release classified information regarding sources and CIA operations, the divulged information consequently spoiled over a “hundred operations and endangered the lives of dozens of Soviet agents” (CIA 2009). Once the CIA’s Soviet agents started to vanish, the CIA grew worrisome that a mole was in their midst, which launched an investigation that eventually lead to Aldrich Ames’ arrest (CIA 2009). According to Fischer (2011), once the CIA assembled a team to investigate a potential mole within the organization, the “KGB launched a major deception effort to divert, mislead, and confuse the CIA mole hunters, sending them off on rabbit paths that pointed in all different directions except the right one” (269). One of the most significant KGB deception tactics was replacing the missing CIA sources with Soviet double agents. To further mislead the CIA from figuring out what happened to the missing agents, the KGB used Ames to persuade the CIA into believing that the KGB had new innovative ways to track and monitor any CIA movements (Fischer 2011, 270). These planted double agents restricted the CIA’s access to key intelligence and also provided the CIA with disinformation regarding Russian and Soviet operations, leading them further and further from the truth (Fischer 2011, 270). Soviet intelligence continued to run major deception operations targeting the CIA and ultimately halted the CIA’s Soviet missions.

Video Footage, Alrich Ames

Analysis & Findings

The Russian counterintelligence architecture has dramatically changed and modernized since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Lowthenthal 2012, 361). The history of the Russian intelligence architecture from the KGB, SVR and GRU to the FSB has significantly improved and honed their counterintelligence collection capabilities and spy craft over an extended period of time. Russia was able to inherit the Soviet Union’s robust counter intelligence apparatus and advance their SIGINT, MASINT, HUMINT and IMINT capabilities. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the KGB and the SVR have heightened HUMINT operations against the United States by twelve percent (FAS). Over the past decade, Russia has engaged in more global business ventures, treaties and “numerous cultural and economic exchanges,” giving the SVR more opportunities to influence U.S. economics, companies, and society in general (FAS). Furthermore, there has been a surmountable influx of Russian émigrés and students entering into the United States and in result creating more recruits to spy for the Russian intelligence services (FAS). The historical HUMINT operations have proven effective and the Russian intelligence services will likely continue to employ human intelligence as a primary tool for collecting intelligence on the United States (FAS). The Russian case studies involving Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames have emphasized Russian proficiency in long-range espionage operations and are capable of de-railing U.S. counterintelligence operations against the former Soviet Union and Russia.

Overview of Russian Counterintelligence

Counterintelligence Services
Case Studies
Russian Tradecraft
Robert Hanssen
Long Term Embedment
Aldrich Ames
Dead Drops
Encrypted Messages

Analysis of Robert Hanssen

Taking a closer look at the Robert Hanssen case study helped identify key Russian espionage components and tradecraft. Robert Hanssen worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation for twenty-five years and during that time period he leaked numerous “counterintelligence and military secrets” to the KGB, GRU and the SVR, compromising many human contacts and operations involving military plans, weapon systems and specific operations against the Soviet Union (U.S. DOJ 2003, 1). By the 1980’s, Hanssen served as a strategic and critical human asset for the KGB and its successor intelligence services. His FBI career and Soviet counterintelligence assignments gave him ample placement to begin his long-term espionage activities (U.S. DOJ 2003, 1). According to Robert Hanssen’s affidavit from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hanssen gave highly classified information to the KGB “on over 20 separate occasions” using dead drop locations and encrypted messages as his primary means of communication (Freeh, 2001). He was able to avoid detection for over twenty years because he used his counterintelligence training to his advantage by disguising his true identity and position within the federal government, avoiding meetings with his KGB case officers and refused to travel to Russia (Freeh, 2001). Hanssen relied on his counterintelligence expertise to ensure that the FBI was not privy to his illegal activities by closely examining the FBI’s archives and his dead drop sites for investigation (Freeh, 2001). The combination of his counterintelligence training and expertise along with his fascination for espionage and his ability to exploit the weaknesses within the FBI’s security contributed to his successful embedment within the United States.

Robert Hanssen participated in espionage during three different time periods throughout his career (U.S. DOJ 2003, 9). During the first two periods Hanssen was very careful and articulate in his dealings with the KGB. He continued to use a fake identity and created his own instructions and brevity codes, which he dictated to the Russian intelligence services (U.S. DOJ 2003, 11). According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2003), Hanssen remained a “dominant spy” for the first two periods of his espionage career, but he became more and more careless and greedy as he fueled his “life-long fascination with espionage” and his desire for monetary compensation (10). As Robert Hanssen continued to engage in espionage activities, his fear of reprisal dramatically decreased. By the end of Hanssen’s second tour of espionage, he began to make careless mistakes that fed directly into the security deficiencies of the FBI, which stalled his eventual arrest. At this point, Hanssen began leaking information that openly identified him as an FBI agent and began carelessly meeting with a GRU officer in 1993 (U.S. DOJ 2003, 12). Furthermore, Hanssen used FBI equipment to monitor the dead drop locations, communicate with his Russian handlers, and he queried his own name and drop locations within the FBI database (U.S. DOJ 2003, 12). Hanssen often received poor performance reviews, mishandled classified information and stole classified information while on duty throughout his career (U.S. DOJ 2003, 7, 9). Furthermore, Hanssen was never subjected to a single polygraph test during his 25 years working for the FBI (U.S. DOJ 2003, 22). Research suggests that Robert Hanssen was able to embed himself within the U.S government for over twenty five years because he remained careful and avoided any traceable contact with the KGB, GRU or the SVR, and his eventual carelessness remained hidden within the security flaws of the FBI.

Analysis of Aldrich Ames

Aldrich Ames serves as another prominent case study for analyzing Russian tradecraft and long-term Russian embedment within the United States. Aldrich Ames worked for the CIA for over three decades and began defecting to the KGB and its successor intelligence service from 1985 to his eventual arrest in 1994 (FBI). Starting in 1985, Ames repeatedly engaged in espionage activities with the KGB and held numerous face-to-face meetings with his KGB handlers and frequently travelled to Russia and other locations to solidify his KGB dealings (FBI). Ames compromised hundreds of U.S. secrets, human sources and U.S. operations using predetermined dead drop locations and coded messages to facilitate his espionage activities, which ultimately caused catastrophic damage to the national security of the United States (FBI). Ames’s specialty in Russian counterintelligence and his ability to speak the language as well as his position within the CIA gave him significant placement within the U.S. federal government to commit espionage and defect from the U.S. (FBI). Research will aim to prove that there were a number of factors that aided Ames’ embedment within the CIA. According to Fischer (2011), the KGB provided overwhelming support to keep Aldrich Ames hidden from the CIA, which contributed to his long-term penetration within the United States (269).

Throughout Aldrich Ames’ espionage career, the KGB “launched a major deception effort” as well as many disinformation operations to prevent the CIA and the FBI from discovering Ames as the source of their intelligence leak (Fischer 2011, 269). As the CIA’s human sources began to disappear, the KGB devised a disinformation plan to convince the CIA that the sources were still alive or were missing due to unrelated issues and began to replace the missing agents with their own double agents (Fischer 2011, 270). The KGB’S diversionary tactics kept the CIA and the FBI off track “for more than eight years,” causing crippling effects to the mole investigation (Fischer 2011, 269).

There were a myriad of factors that contributed to Ames’ successful penetration of the U.S. such as his placement and position within the CIA, the KGB’s overwhelming support and deception operation that kept Ames hidden, but also the numerous security flaws within the CIA, lack of resources to support the mole hunter investigation, and the CIA’s inattention to Ames’ lavish and extraordinary lifestyle. In contrast to Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames was not as meticulous and careful regarding his frequent trips and meetings with the KGB. Additionally, Ames lived a luxurious lifestyle by buying a brand new Jaguar and half a million dollar home (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1994). These types of extravagant purchases did not match the salary of a CIA agent (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1994). According to a report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (1994), there had been a few inquiries reported against Ames regarding his large purchases, but the investigations were found inconclusive and the CIA did not want to raise suspicions by giving Ames an earlier polygraph and reinvestigation so the CIA determined they would test him at the routine five year mark. When the CIA conducted his routine polygraph in 1991, the polygraph examiner did not ask any specialized questions regarding the alleged purchases, so the polygraph results did not show any unfavorable results toward Ames (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1994).

The Aldrich Ames case study revealed significant security deficiencies within the CIA. Ames not only received sub-par performance evaluations, but also was noted for his inattention to detail, alcohol abuse, lateness, and on many occasions for mishandling classified information (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1994). Unfortunately, his careless behavior and security incidents were never officially reported and documented (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1994). The Aldrich Ames case study brings to light many security deficiencies within the CIA such as accurately evaluating employees, upholding security procedures regarding classified information and employing reinvestigations, background checks and polygraphs when needed, rather than on a routine basis. Aldrich Ames was able to remain hidden for nine years because he used dead drops, coded messages and the KGB helped to conceal his espionage activities, but the security deficiencies and lack of initiative within the CIA prolonged his espionage career without det

Russian Trade Craft

Both Russian operations were designed for long-term embedment within the United States using similar tradecraft such as counterintelligence training, dead drops, and coded messages to leak information to the KGB or the SVR. Research suggests that the Robert Hanssen case study relied more on his counterintelligence training and expertise than Aldrich Ames to avoid detection. However, both case studies revealed systemic security flaws within the security architecture of the FBI and the CIA, which perpetuated Hanssens and Ames’ prolonged penetration within the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2003), numerous security deficiencies were found in retrospect such as the lack of “meaningful background reinvestigations,” regular polygraph tests and proficient examiners, lack of interagency cooperation and information sharing as well as compartmentalization and handling of classified materials (21).

Conclusions & Recommendations

The Russian counterintelligence services are a significant and increasing threat to the national security of the United States. Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia inherited an experienced and premier intelligence capability originally inspired by the KGB. Since the fall of the KGB, Russia reorganized its intelligence capabilities into the SVR, GRU and FAPSI.

To prevent and counter Russian penetration, U.S. policymakers need to be aware of the counterintelligence and security failures within the FBI and the CIA. This qualitative study revealed multiple security flaws such as a lack of personnel management, background checks, reinvestigations, polygraphs, document security, and cyber security. These security issues can provide U.S. policy makers with a better understanding of not only how to detect and counter Russian penetration, but also provide the necessary solutions to fix the problem permanently. To remedy these security issues, the federal government needs to improve upon its counterintelligence policies and procedures. Based on the research gathered, future research should involve a stronger focus on the U.S. security architecture and policies that will impede the Russian espionage threat.

One recommendation would be to have the federal agencies establish a counterespionage element that is trained to analyze indicators of foreign penetration (27). Another recommendation would be to integrate a formal investigative component of the Department of Justice to assist with counterintelligence investigations (U.S. DOJ 2003, 27). Improving upon the security deficiencies within the U.S. security architecture is imperative and will require additional research to ensure adequate policy reforms are taking place.


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    • AdoptionNetwork profile imageAUTHOR

      Your Adoption Gateway 

      3 years ago

      Thanks, I appreciate that! The spy world is very fascinating.

    • pumpkincat210 profile image

      Courtney Rhodes 

      3 years ago

      Thanks! Fascinating and disturbing at the same time. I hope you continue to write hubs on similar topics. I find them very interesting.

    • AdoptionNetwork profile imageAUTHOR

      Your Adoption Gateway 

      3 years ago

      Chris- Unfortunately, intelligence doesn't always influence politics, because policymakers often do not take it seriously or it is very undervalued. That's why I wrote this so policy makers would learn more about intelligence, the process and the threats that can cause serious damage to US national security.

      To answer your question: think of Counterintelligence in terms of security. We want to protect against other intelligence services or spies from penetrating our country and gaining high-level sensitive positions, just like Ames and Aldrich did. We implement counter intelligence measures to protect against espionage. For example, the FBI does background checks, issues clearances, polygraphs and does periodic reviews on its employees to keep any potential moles at bay. Thanks for your comment!

    • AdoptionNetwork profile imageAUTHOR

      Your Adoption Gateway 

      3 years ago

      In the case with the Russian woman, Anna Chapman, her along with 9 other Russian spies lived in the U.S. collecting information on our country. The FBI was initially aware of their presence and began investigating the ten Russian spies for over ten years in order to gain knowledge on Russian espionage tactics. This spy network also brings to light the SVR’s involvement in establishing robust legends for the long term under cover agents. The SVR provided most of the agents with “bank accounts, homes, cars and regular payments” in exchange for higher-level U.S secrets and candidates for recruitment (Burton, 2010). In 2011, the FBI released several pieces of evidence on the network of Russian sleeper agents also known as Operation Ghost Stories (Fox News, 2011). The article asserts that the Russian spy ring were considered “illegals” because they mostly lived regular, suburban lives and did not attempt to seek higher level government positions (Fox News, 2011). The spy ring was under a “long-range assignment from Moscow” to build robust connections and contacts with government workers, university professionals and business owners (Fox News, 2011).

      The ten individuals were trained in espionage operations and used “cutting-edge gadgetry,” encrypted texts, and sophisticated communication software to talk to each other and relay information to their KGB handlers (New York Times 2010, 1-2). According to a STRATFOR report (2010), the illegals network employed traditional Russian tradecraft such as radiograms, online dead drops, sent messages using undetectable ink, rendezvoused in neutral countries, and used “brush passes” and “flash meets to transfer information” (STRATFOR Global Intelligence, 2010). The SVR directed the illegals network to “establish a deep cover” on a long-term basis to prevent from being compromised (STRATFOR Global Intelligence, 2010). The illegals continually reported information back to the SVR, but the information that was divulged was mostly unclassified and open source information. Once FBI agents realized Russian illegals were operating within the U.S., FBI counterintelligence launched a ten-year investigation to learn and study the Russian network’s spy craft and the information being passed to the SVR (STRATFOR Global Intelligence, 2010). In contrast to the Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames case studies, the illegals Russian network did not cause catastrophic damage to the national security of the United States, but was used as a counterintelligence-learning tool for the FBI. The illegals spy network was employed as a Russian sleeper cell with instructions to remain under cover and not seek senior level governmental positions in an effort to further embed themselves and blend in within American society.

    • pumpkincat210 profile image

      Courtney Rhodes 

      3 years ago

      I vaguely remember the case in which a Russian woman with red hair was believed to be a spy, she was a model? Is there a link between Russian mail order brides and espionage? To my limited knowledge, if they are not just scammers, and they do actually enter and marry an American, do they have to go through an intense background check and interview? and how thorough could a background check be considering the relations we have with Russia? As for the women that do enter the states, are they left alone by both governments if they do not break the law? On one hand it would be unwise not to monitor them and on the other hand it would be discriminatory to keep tabs and assume she was a secret agent. It's all so convoluted.

    • CHRIS57 profile image


      3 years ago from Northern Germany

      Interesting read, but is there any case existing where knowledge about intelligence penetration impacted politics?

      And i would go even further. Is there any evidence that intelligence material ever influenced political action?

      My impression is that it is always the other ay around. Intelligence always accompanies policy makers but most seldom influences decisions.

      However intelligence always potentially compromises personal integrity of political decision makers. So - counterintelligence - isn´t that more to protect personal (private) status?


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