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The UK is a high priority espionage target. Many countries actively seek UK information and material to advance their own agendas. 

Last Updated 26 February 2023

The potential impact of successful State-sponsored espionage against the UK is both wide reaching and significant. The threat of espionage (spying) did not end with the collapse of Soviet communism in the early 1990s. Espionage against UK interests still continues and is potentially very damaging. A number of foreign intelligence services (FIS) seek to gather intelligence on a broad range of subjects, including foreign policy, defence, financial, technological, industrial and commercial interests. 

What is espionage?

Most governments rely on a range of information being gathered to guide their decisions. This is not the same as espionage.

Espionage is the process of obtaining information that is not normally publicly available, using human sources (agents) or technical means (like hacking into computer systems).  It may also involve seeking to influence decision-makers and opinion-formers to benefit the interests of a foreign power.

Open information gathering

The gathering of publicly available information is a routine activity of diplomatic staff, military attachs and trade delegations. They use open sources such as the media, conferences, diplomatic events and trade fairs, and through open contact with host government representatives. This enables them to monitor political, economic and military developments in their host country and brief their own governments. Foreign representatives thereby help their governments to shape their foreign, commercial and military policies. This type of work is not harmful to our national interests. In fact, it often helps us to build good relationships with other nations.

Why is espionage damaging?

Espionage focuses on gathering non-public information through covert means. Classified information is kept secret in the first place because its disclosure might harm national security, jeopardise the country's economic well-being or damage international relations. Its sensitivity makes it necessary for us to protect it but also makes it attractive to spies.

If this information is obtained by those with no right to access it, serious damage can be caused. For instance:

  • Other countries seeking technical details of weapons systems so that they can find ways of neutralising our military advantages.
  • Gathering information on key services such as gas, oil and transport which could enable terrorists to seriously damage these important economic targets.
  • Theft of classified technologies which could enable foreign companies to copy them, threatening both national security and jobs in the UK.

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Targets of espionage

In the past, espionage activity was typically directed towards obtaining political and military intelligence. These targets remain of critical importance but in today's technology-driven world, the intelligence requirements of a number of countries are wider than before. They now include communications technologies, IT, energy, scientific research, defence, aviation, electronics and many other fields. Intelligence services, therefore, are targeting commercial as well as government-related organisations. They sometimes do this on behalf of state-owned or sponsored companies in their own countries.

The UK is a high priority espionage target. Many countries actively seek UK information and material to advance their own military, technological, political and economic programmes. The threat is not confined to within the UK itself. A foreign intelligence service operates best in its own country and therefore finds it easier to target UK interests at home, where they can control the environment and take advantage of any perceived vulnerabilities. The most capable foreign intelligence services are able to operate all over the world.

What information are spies looking for?

Intelligence agencies are directed by their governments to focus their attention on specific priorities. State agencies, the military and companies working on sensitive technologies are prime targets for foreign espionage.

Intelligence services working against the UK tend to focus on gaining a number of different types of secret information:


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Military secrets

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Industrial secrets 

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Political secrets

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Targeting dissidents

Military secrets

These will include technical information about weapons, details of where troops are located, information on defences and so on. This can be especially useful to an enemy country in wartime. It can help an enemy to find weak points or launch surprise attacks. It can also be useful to terrorists, as it can help them to pick out targets and weak points.

 Industrial secrets 

These will include information on companies' products and plans. Spies are especially interested in details of new inventions that may have a military or commercial use. Examples include communications technologies, computers, genetics, aviation, lasers, optics and electronics. Such secrets may also help give some countries an economic or military advantage.

Information of interest could extend from manufacturing processes and research programmes through to negotiating positions, financial transactions and longer-term strategy developments. All of which can help provide other countries with an economic advantage or enable foreign companies to establish a market lead using UK innovation.

In addition, previous incidences of the theft or release of sensitive information have been instigated by competitors, media organisations, activist groups, past employees and even existing staff - the consequences of which are no less costly, embarrassing or disruptive to the organisation that was targeted.

Political secrets

These will include confidential information on political and security affairs, negotiating positions, sensitive economic information and details of policy developments. Foreign governments could use such information to gain advantage in areas such as international relations and intelligence operations.

Targeting dissidents

Some foreign governments also target dissident movements and individuals that they see as a threat to their control at home. The UK's long tradition of political tolerance has meant that many foreign dissidents have made their homes here over the years - most famously the Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky - but this has also prompted the sometimes hostile interest of foreign intelligence services and this continues to the present day.

How is espionage conducted?

Spies working for states fall into two categories: intelligence officers and agents.

Intelligence officers

Intelligence officers are members of intelligence services. They will be highly trained in espionage techniques and the use of agents. They may operate openly, declaring themselves as representatives of foreign intelligence services to their host nation, or covertly under the cover of other official positions such as diplomatic staff or trade delegates.

Some intelligence officers may operate under non-official cover to conceal the fact that they work for an intelligence service - posing as a business person, student or journalist for example. In some cases they may operate in "deep cover" under false names and nationalities. Such spies are dubbed "illegals" because they operate without any of the protections offered by diplomatic immunity.


In the UK, an agent, more formally known as a "covert human intelligence source", is someone who secretly provides information to an intelligence officer. They will probably not be a professional "spy" but may have some basic instruction in espionage methods. An agent may be motivated by a wide variety of personal or ideological factors.

Confusion often arises between what is meant by an officer and an agent. Other countries use the same terminology in different ways. In the United States, for instance, an agent is a member of an intelligence or security agency such as the FBI or CIA. Such agencies call a covert human intelligence source an "informant" rather than an "agent". 

How intelligence officers and agents operate

Intelligence officers seek to gather covert intelligence directly and to recruit agents to obtain intelligence on their behalf.

The methods used by intelligence officers vary widely, and are often limited only by their ingenuity. They will often take advantage of the latest technology, using it to eavesdrop, tap telephone calls and communicate secretly. However, the human relationship between intelligence officers and their agents remains a key element of espionage.

Foreign intelligence services typically seek to establish networks of agents whom they can use over a sustained period of time, so that they can obtain a reliable flow of information. Agents operate by exploiting trusted relationships and positions to obtain sensitive information. They may also look for vulnerabilities among those handling secrets. They may be aware of flaws in their organisation's security that they can exploit.

Cyber espionage

Espionage activity is also carried out in cyberspace. Foreign intelligence services increasingly use the Internet and cyber techniques to conduct espionage against UK interests. Cyber can be an attractive method of intelligence gathering for several reasons:

  • It can be more cost-effective than traditional means.
  • Its remote nature means that those involved have an extra layer of deniability.
  • The volume of data that can be stolen is potentially immense.

Cyber also negates the need for a human agent as information gathering can be done remotely, without an intelligence officer needing to leave their desk, let alone their country.

As we become more reliant on the internet in our everyday lives the threat from cyber espionage will only increase. To that end the Government has published a UK Cyber Security Strategy. This will help the UK to retain its balance of advantage in cyberspace.

For more information on how to protect against cyber threat, see the National Cyber Security Centre website.

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More information about the espionage threat can be found on the MI5 website


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