Espionage 101

Espionage can take many forms, from the high-stakes espionage played out in the movies by Ian Fleming’s James Bond to the theft of trade secrets by companies. Customary international law, however, stipulates that people caught in the act of espionage cannot benefit from prisoner-of-war status. 심부름센터

The federal crime of espionage punishes those who disclose sensitive information that could harm national security. Learn more about this delicate practice.


In the United States, espionage is defined as an act that reveals confidential information to an enemy of the state. Traditionally, the term has been used to describe state spying on potential enemies for military purposes. However, private citizens, such as Chelsea Manning, have been accused of espionage when they disclosed sensitive government documents to the public.

Spying involving companies is also called industrial espionage. Competitors in industries like new technology, fashion, and toy manufacturing are often willing to use fair means (and sometimes foul) to steal design plans or formulas from each other. In this way, they can gain a competitive advantage without the expense of research and development or risking patent infringement.

Spies working for a nation can operate openly, declaring themselves as representatives of intelligence services to their host country’s diplomats, or covertly by impersonating non-official officials or trade delegates. By customary international humanitarian law, combatants caught in the act of espionage do not qualify for prisoner-of-war status, but must be treated humanely and given a fair trial. A soldier found guilty of espionage is subject to a court-martial.


A country may engage in espionage to uncover information it cannot acquire otherwise. This information could be used to improve military strength or economic competitiveness. Governments also engage in espionage to protect against national and terrorist threats.

Spies are usually depicted as sophisticated and strong individuals in popular media, from Ian Fleming’s James Bond to Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy. However, spies can be motivated by a wide variety of personal and ideological factors. Those who engage in espionage can be caught for violating domestic and international laws.

A major form of espionage involves the theft of trade secrets. This can occur through open or clandestine means and can provide foreign entities with vital proprietary economic information at a fraction of the cost of developing it. It can also result in significant economic losses for the victim. Many countries have strict laws against espionage and those who break them can face severe penalties. For example, the 1917 Espionage Act, passed when the United States entered World War I, imposes heavy punishment for any activity that weakens a country’s defense. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the first victims of this law when they were executed for espionage.


The techniques used in espionage are wide and varied. A handler (who is not a professional intelligence officer, but who cultivates a spy’s trust) may try to convince the individual to risk their life as a spy through appealing to ideologies such as patriotism or religion; personal motivations such as greed, ego and love; and coercive methods like blackmail.

Many countries have intelligence agencies that gather massive amounts of information through fairly accessible means, such as trade journals, business meetings and industrial expositions. However, obtaining less accessible information is often a matter of professional spies, who use deception and subterfuge to steal classified information.

Industrial espionage is often difficult to detect and even harder to prove. For instance, a former employee seeking revenge or a competitor looking to gain a competitive advantage can easily take data with them on their last day of work, thanks to the ease of access provided by today’s telecommuting policies. This type of espionage has become especially common during the coronavirus pandemic, when companies were encouraged to let their employees work from home.


Espionage is considered a federal crime in the United States and can carry significant prison sentences or even death. In addition, those who engage in espionage can face serious legal and disciplinary action.

Though portrayed as sophisticated and strong elites in popular culture (like Ian Fleming’s James Bond) and comic fools in Mad Magazine, real spying takes place among ordinary people with a wide variety of motives. For example, the military private Chelsea Manning was charged with espionage for sharing classified documents with Wikileaks. Manning insisted she was acting as a whistleblower, but military prosecutors were able to show that her actions could have potentially harmed the U.S.

The law of espionage is complex and generally measured against considerations of situational ethics or political convenience rather than international law. However, customary international humanitarian law stipulates that combatants caught in the act of espionage cannot benefit from the status of prisoners of war and must be given a fair trial. (See the ICRC study on the Law of War in International Armed Conflict, 2005). The Justice Department cited 18 USC 793 when seeking warrants to search former President Donald Trump’s Florida property in 2019. This section of the Espionage Act includes provisions on the gathering, transmitting, or losing of national defense information.


For millennia, people seeking top secret information have carried out espionage. George Washington was a master of it during the American Revolutionary War, employing spies and using codes and ciphers to keep communications secure. Spies typically are aided by case officers and other support staff that provide cover and direction. They also use cut-outs and safe houses to transfer messages and funds.

The advent of technology has made it easier for spies to steal secrets, whether it be government information or personal data. For example, in 2009 researchers discovered a massive cyber espionage operation, code-named GhostNet, which infected computers with monitoring malware that would track activity on the machines.

In addition, the proliferation of digital information has led to a rise in industrial espionage, as companies seek to protect their intellectual property from thieves. In such cases, data forensics is often used to determine how a breach occurred. For example, a stolen database could contain proprietary trade secrets or customer data that reveals security vulnerabilities. This leads to the need for organizations to comply with NIST cybersecurity guidelines.