To help clarify some of the myths and misconceptions about what MI5 agents do and how we recruit them, we have tried to answer some frequently asked questions.
What might I be asked to do?
You will be asked to help us by sharing information you already know or by being prepared to find out that information we need to carry out our work to protect national security. Each agent is different and that is why the relationship with the agent handler is key. They will provide advice on how you could safely get the information we need to help prevent such things as future acts of terrorism or espionage.
The way in which each person is able to assist MI5 is unique. Part of the role of the agent handler is to discuss with you how and when you can help, fitting in with other commitments in your life, such as your work or family. We work closely with each of our agents to make sure they are able to manage what we are asking them to do. Some people work with us for a very short period of time; others help us over the course of months or even years.
How safe will I be?
We take very seriously the security of those who work with us. Anything we ask you to do will be carefully planned in advance to identify and minimise any potential risk. We would never compel anyone to do anything which they are not willing to do. Most importantly, you will develop a relationship of trust and honesty with your agent handler that will enable you to have a frank discussion about how best to achieve any objective. In nearly all instances you will work together with the agent handler to develop a plan to get the information.
All of our agent handlers have a significant amount of training before starting in this role. A major part of this training involves identifying and managing potential risks. Building up our relationship with you is at the centre of this process. Both sides need to be open about what can and cannot be done. This will form much of any discussion between you and your agent handler. All meetings are carried out securely and when meetings are not possible other secure methods of contact will be agreed.
Why should I do it?
We cannot keep this country safe without the help of many men and women who have agreed to provide vital information to stop terrorist attacks or to protect sensitive information from being passed secretly to other states. Although we cannot name those who help, those who do feel an understandable sense of pride about the role they have played in secretly working to prevent loss of life or harm to the UK's national security.
What's in it for me?
There are many ways in which we recognise the important role of agents. In some cases that includes money — we would certainly not expect someone to be out of pocket for agreeing to help. But there are a number of ways in which we can reward agents for the contribution they make — this is something that an agent handler will discuss with you.
Who can I tell what I am doing?
We take very seriously the security of those who work with us. We protect your privacy and security by strictly limiting who we tell about our relationship and we would never confirm its existence to members of the public; for these reasons we would ask you to limit who you tell as well. On the whole people prefer to keep to themselves the assistance they are providing. If you wanted or needed to tell someone, the agent handler would discuss the pros and cons with you, so that you can work out together whether you should do so.
How do I know what I am being asked to do is okay?
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) provides the legal basis for many of the investigative methods which MI5 uses, and agent handlers will also follow the Covert human intelligence sources code of practice. These determine how we work with our agents. Even before an agent handler can approach someone, they need to go through a detailed internal process and gain approval. Reviews continue throughout the entire time we are in contact with an agent.
How do I know that an approach is genuine?
If you are approached you can of course ask for confirmation that you are speaking to genuine member of MI5. The person approaching you can advise on the best way for you to seek reassurance.
Even if I don't want to help, will you force me to do so?
No-one can force you to assist - it is a matter for you. However if you are approached we would be keen for you to think about why we would like to talk to you. You may be someone who we think is in a unique position to provide information to help keep the UK secure. What we are asking you to do is critical to ensuring the country remains safe and may potentially save lives.
Do you ever use blackmail to get information?
No. MI5 does not blackmail people to get them to help. We always like to know why people are prepared to help as this helps put the information into context. Knowing someone had been forced to help would skew this process entirely.
Aren't you just spying on the community?
No. MI5 investigates threats to national security posed by particular groups or individuals. We do not investigate, and do not wish to investigate, entire communities. We are interested in individuals who are actively planning to do things that could harm others (such as carrying out a terrorist attack), that could support those wanting to harm others (such as fundraising to support those planning terrorist attacks or seeking to complete training to do so) or information that protects us from spying by other countries. What we can gather information on is governed by the Security Service Act 1989 and how we do this regulated by RIPA.
Do you talk to people who have extremist or criminal backgrounds?
Yes. We need to talk to people who can help us understand more about the threats we face. Some of the people we talk to will have been involved in extremism and/or criminal activities.