What Is Espionage?

Espionage involves obtaining secrets that would help a nation or organization develop and improve their competitive positions. The concept of espionage has long captured the imagination, inspiring both literature and film.


But the emergence of cyber technology has forced us to reevaluate this ancient practice. This exhibit will explore the ways that States can use espionage to protect their national security interests.


Essentially, it’s a covert process of collecting sensitive information that is classified and would cause harm or embarrassment to the entity sharing it if released. Such information might include national security, trade secrets, or foreign policy details that could negatively impact a country’s economic status. This type of information is often collected for financial gain, but also can be used to create a competitive advantage or even 흥신소 sold for political reasons.

While the term espionage is often used to describe various intelligence-gathering disciplines, including human source intelligence (HUMINT), codebreaking (cryptanalysis or COMINT) and aircraft or satellite photography (IMINT), the practice of espionage is a specific one that is defined by two federal acts: The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Economic Espionage Act of 1996. This discipline is primarily conducted by governments as they pursue their economic goals, but may also be carried out by other entities for political or military purposes.

The occurrence of industrial espionage has grown with the development of the Internet and lax cybersecurity practices, with some estimates that American businesses lose $100 billion annually to this type of espionage. This form of spying involves stealing trade secrets from competing companies by illegally obtaining, observing or copying confidential or valuable information for use by the competitor. It also may involve bribery, blackmail and other forms of corruption.

Purpose 흥신소

While the purpose of espionage may vary, most countries engage in it to obtain information about their enemies or opponents. This information is sometimes used in wartime for strategy purposes. It also may be used to advance economic interests. For example, it has been common for competitors to steal other companies’ patents or ideas to undercut them. This is called industrial espionage.

The FBI uses its resources to investigate and prosecute people involved in espionage. Those convicted can be charged with violating the Espionage Act, which prohibits obtaining or sharing classified information that could endanger national security. The Act was enacted in 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I, and it has been in effect ever since. It has been used to convict spies, such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were sentenced to death for passing secrets about the development of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

The act has also been used to convict individuals who leak classified information, such as former CIA officer Robert Hanssen who was convicted of handing over a huge cache of files to the Russians. Those convicted can be charged with a felony that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. The law also makes it illegal to interfere with a governmental entity’s military or naval operations, and it is against the law to obstruct enlistment in the armed forces.


As the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” Unfortunately, it also can be costly — especially to global companies that face a host of threats from foreign competitors seeking confidential information like formulas, algorithms and strategic plans.

Spies have long devised a wide range of ways to acquire and transmit secrets. In the exhibit Tools of the Trade, visitors can see some of these methods and devices. They range from the high-tech to the low-tech: cufflinks containing tiny compasses, used by MI9 agents in the 1930s; a Jack-in-the-Box, a suitcase that slid open when a spy needed to escape surveillance; and that old spy film staple, the brush pass, where a document or package is passed surreptitiously between two agents in alleyways or subway stairwells.

Other techniques involve secret writing or passing messages using technology hidden in everyday objects. The oldest classified information in the United States still concerns invisible ink, invented during World War I; the FBI’s complaint against the suspected Russian sleeper agents in 2010 cited bursts of data broadcast over shortwave radio, a technique that predates the Cold War.

Sometimes a spy’s mission requires an in-person meeting, but that is risky. For that reason, sharing information often relies on what the intelligence community calls covert communication or COVCOM. Methods include secret writing (as demonstrated by the invisible ink), crypts and codes (letters were replaced with symbols or numbers to hide the message) and secure communication devices such as those concealed in pens, lighters, mirrors and hats.


For governments seeking to compete in the global marketplace, industrial espionage is a key tool. For millennia, spies have stolen inventions and technology secrets from competing nations to undercut rivals or gain a competitive advantage. This type of espionage can take place in many sectors, including the food industry, chemicals and textiles, and in high-tech industries such as aerospace, IT, communications technologies, energy, defence, aviation and electronics.

Among the most common targets are government-owned and state-run companies. Governments want to acquire intelligence on their national rivals’ R&D, manufacturing and production processes. In addition, they seek to acquire information on the company’s key personnel, the company’s collaboration networks and subcontracting chains and IT system security arrangements.

Spies also target universities and hospitals. They may search wastebaskets for documents or copy files from unattended computers, or they may use recording devices such as pens and USB sticks. Many of these spying activities are carried out using remote access technology, such as a Trojan horse or other malware that gains initial entry to a corporate network via a vulnerable website.

The recruitment, handling and training of human agents are central to a country’s intelligence capability. Reliable agents are needed to gather intelligence and to subvert the enemy. This is often done by creating a “defector” in the enemy, who agrees to work for the intelligence agency and returns classified information. However, this can be dangerous and even fatal if the defector is captured by the opposition’s intelligence service.