Espionage 101

Espionage may conjure images of James Bond villainy, but it is often a mundane business that gathers information from fairly accessible sources such as publications and conferences. More difficult to obtain is information that can help a nation gain economic advantage.


Courts can help strike a better balance between the secrecy needed for national security and the transparency that fuels democracy by ensuring that First Amendment interests are taken into account at both liability and sentencing phases of media leak cases.


Espionage is the act of spying on a person, company, or government to gather confidential information and give it to another organization or country. It’s considered a serious crime in most countries and is often punished harshly.

Spies often wear disguises to blend in with their surroundings and use code words to communicate. They may also work with agents or case officers, who support them and receive orders from higher ups. There are several different kinds of espionage, but the most dangerous is industrial espionage. This involves stealing company secrets, such as formulas and technological advances. It’s more common in industries with large economies, such as technology, pharmaceuticals, and aerospace.

This type of espionage is also a concern for businesses, because it can lead to costly lawsuits if someone’s trade secrets are exposed. The government can punish a person for committing espionage even if they don’t intend to harm the United States. For example, the federal government convicted Chelsea Manning of espionage when she leaked sensitive military documents to Wikileaks. Her lawyers argued that she was only trying to expose bad conduct by others, but the government still considered her actions to be illegal.


Known since ancient times, espionage is a vital part of military strategy. It is also used in economic competition. Governments have long kept large civilian intelligence agencies that collect information on enemy militaries and economic systems. They often employ spies to infiltrate dissident and workers’ organizations and report on antigovernment activities. Spies can also steal technology and sabotage enemy equipment or businesses. Many countries have laws against espionage and have a variety of severe penalties for those caught engaging in the practice.

In the modern era, espionage has become more sophisticated and more centralized. Nations and city-states now have dedicated intelligence services with specialized staff. Many use trained agents whose identities are known to only one or two people. They may also use technological advancements to improve espionage. The invention of cameras, telescopes and the camera obscura improved the ability to spy on distant locations. The telegraph, which enabled messages to be sent over distances in real time, transformed espionage in the 19th century. During World War II, the British at Bletchley Park deciphered the German Enigma code and greatly aided Allied victory.


The primary targets of espionage are usually governments but can include large corporations, academic institutions and even individuals. These entities typically possess valuable intellectual property and technical information that can create a competitive advantage for a foreign entity or nation.

Spies must be able to steal information quickly and quietly, often in the face of considerable resistance. They must also be able to communicate securely. Spies use COVCOM and covert communication devices that allow them to transmit data without detection. They may also communicate by phone, email or fax.

While spies have been around for millennia, modern technology has allowed them to gather vast amounts of data quickly and cheaply. The information they collect can include sensitive government secrets, military technology or personal information about individuals.

The FBI is constantly seeking to raise awareness about the threats posed by cyber espionage. Recent breaches have shown that any industry, whether it is in the high-tech sector or a more traditional industry, can be targeted. For example, a recent attack by the FANCY BEAR (APT28, Sofacy) group involved phishing attacks against victims in the energy and defense sectors.


Spies use a variety of methods to gather information and communicate with each other. These techniques, known as tradecraft, include clever disguises, surveillance and concealment. Spies also have access to sophisticated technology for transmitting and receiving secret information. For example, the Nazis used an Enigma machine to send encrypted messages during World War II. Allied code breakers broke this system, shortening the war by two years.

Digital espionage involves hacking into computer systems to steal sensitive data. Cybercriminals exploit human emotions such as excitement, curiosity and empathy to trick victims into divulging personal information, clicking malicious links or paying a ransom.

Industrial espionage can hurt companies financially and can be seen as a violation of compliance requirements. A disgruntled employee, a former partner or an overseas competitor may be the source of this illegal activity. A comprehensive cybersecurity policy, effective employee management and an efficient insider risk management solution can reduce the chances of this type of attack. Request a free trial of Ekran System to learn how.


The United States passed the Espionage Act of 1917 in World War I to prosecute people who illegally gather or transfer classified information. The law applies to individuals as well as corporations, and the penalty is usually fines or imprisonment.

Spies often collect intelligence about enemy military forces, including their size and strength. They also steal information such as sensitive data about foreign policy, military technology or personal information about individuals. Intelligence agencies try to counteract the efforts of spies by infiltrating them or attempting to influence them to defect.

Many companies lose millions of dollars due to industrial espionage. The information is sold to foreign entities at a fraction of the cost of development and research.

Recruits may pose as cleaners or repairmen to steal information from computers, and they are known to use hotel rooms and airport baggage carousels for their operations. People who travel for business are a frequent target of industrial espionage as they leave their laptops unattended in public places. Psychologists study the motivations of prospective spies, and most sane individuals realistically assess the ruthlessness of their targets and choose not to engage in this secretive game.