How MI5 use Covert Human Intelligence Sources
We understand that some people will be concerned about their safety when contacting us. If you get in touch with us, we will treat you and your information with the highest confidentiality, as we do with all of our critical sources of intelligence.
To help clarify some of the myths about what MI5 Covert Human Intelligence Sources, or "agents" do and how we recruit them, we have tried to answer some frequently asked questions.
What is a Covert Human Intelligence Source?
Covert Human Intelligence Sources, also known as 'agents', are not formally employed by MI5. We refer to our staff as 'officers'. If you are interested in working for MI5, please visit our careers pages.
Agents are some of the most significant information sources we have as an organisation, and they provide information that is critical to keeping the UK safe. Agents work alongside specifically trained MI5 staff members, known as 'Case Officers' or 'Agent Handlers'.
All our agents are volunteers and work with us for a variety of reasons. They have helped us stop multiple terrorist plots and attacks in the last decade, as well as helping us understand and frustrate attempts made by hostile actors to undermine our nation's security.
Although we are not able to publicly recognise individuals who help, it is no exaggeration to say that they really are unsung heroes.
MI5 takes the safety of our agents as a top priority. Anything we ask you to do will be carefully planned in advance to identify and minimise any potential risk, and we never compel anyone to do anything that they are not willing to do. Agents and Case Officers work within a strict legal framework that gives limits on what they can and cannot do.
What might I be asked to do?
Nothing that you don't want to do. All our agents are volunteers and the way in which each agent is able to work with MI5 is unique.
You may be asked to help us by sharing information you already know. Each agent is different and works with a Case Officer on how to safely get the information we need to help prevent things such as future acts of terrorism or espionage.
Working with a Case Officer, agents discuss with them how and when they can help, fitting in with other commitments in their lives, such as 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.
Why should I do it?
Agents work with us for a variety of reasons, and we cannot keep our country, and its people, safe without their help. Although we cannot name our agents, those who help us feel an understandable sense of pride by being part of a team and working with us to prevent loss of life and protect all the members of our society.
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. For many, it is the opportunity to help someone they know who may be in trouble, or being able to keep others safe. But there are a number of ways in which we can reward agents, and this is something a Case Officer will discuss with you.
Agents only work with us as long as they are happy to do so, and only do jobs they want to do.
How safe will I be?
We take the security of those who work with us very seriously. Anything we ask you to do will be carefully planned in advance to identify and minimise any potential risk. Agents develop a relationship of trust and honesty with a Case Officer that enables a frank discussion about how best to achieve any objective. Agents work together with a case officer to develop a plan to get the information.
All of our Case Officers have a significant amount of training before starting in their roles. A major part of this training involves ensuring the safety of any agent they work with. Both sides need to be open about what can and cannot be achieved or managed. All meetings with Case Officers are carried out securely and when meetings are not possible, other secure methods of contact will be agreed.
How do I know what I am being asked to do is OK and legal?
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) provides the legal basis for many of the investigative methods 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 a Case Officer 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.
MI5 agent handling processes are also subject to independent external scrutiny by the Intelligence Services Commissioner, who carries out checks to ensure that we are acting in accordance with the requirements of the law. They publish regular reports on the three intelligence services' activities under the terms of RIPA and ensure we're compliant.
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 a genuine member of staff. The person approaching you will advise you on how you can verify that they work for MI5.
Do you ever use blackmail or force people to get information?
No. MI5 does not blackmail people or force people to get them to help. We always like to know why people are prepared to help as this allows us to put information into context. Knowing someone had been forced to help would skew this process entirely. If we do approach you, you are someone who we think is in a unique position to help us keep the UK safe and secure, and what we are asking you to do may save lives.
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 only interested in individuals who are actively planning to do things that could harm others (such as carrying out a terrorist attack), are supporting those wanting to harm others (such as fundraising or training), or any information that protects us from spying by other countries.
Does MI5 talk to people who have extremist or criminal backgrounds?
Yes. We talk to anyone who can help us understand more about the threats we face, regardless of their background. This does mean that some of the people we talk to will have been involved in extremism and/or criminal activities.
Who can I tell what I am doing?
We take the security of those who work with us very seriously. We protect your privacy and security by strictly limiting who we tell about our relationship, and would never confirm its existence to members of the public. For these reasons, we 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 Case Officer would discuss the pros and cons with you, so that you can work out together whether you should do so.
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