MI5 - Security Service

Covert Human Intelligence Sources

Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS), more commonly known as agents, are one of our most important sources of intelligence. Agent operations are run by specially trained officers and can continue for long periods, sometimes for many years.

What is an agent?

An agent is anyone able to provide intelligence that assists our investigations. Agents are not members of the Service - we call our staff "officers", not "agents".

For more information on what our agents do, see the following pages:

Legal framework

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 opens in a new window (RIPA) provides a legal definition of an agent. It states that a person is an agent if:

(a) he establishes or maintains a personal or other relationship with a person for the covert purpose of facilitating the doing of anything falling within paragraph (b) or (c);

(b) he covertly uses such a relationship to obtain information or to provide access to any information to another person; or

(c) he covertly discloses information obtained by the use of such a relationship, or as a consequence of the existence of such a relationship.

Agent operations carried out by the Security Service and other bodies named in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act are governed by Part II of the Act and the Code of Practice on the Use and Conduct of Covert Human Intelligence Sources.

Part II of the Act provides a statutory basis for the use of agents and sets out strict rules for their use. Under the terms of the Act, agents must only be used where it is necessary in the interests of national security, for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime, or in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK. The use of agents must be proportionate to what the authorising body seeks to achieve.

Our use of agents is subject to independent external scrutiny by the Intelligence Service Commissioner, who carries out checks to ensure that we are acting in accordance with the requirements of the law. He publishes regular reports on the three intelligence services' activities under the terms of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Apart from the Security Service, several other public sector and Government organisations also make use of agents. They include the police opens in a new window, HM Revenue and Customs opens in a new window, the Armed Forces opens in a new window and the UK's other intelligence agencies.

Former agents

We are often asked to confirm whether someone (such as a relative or person of historical interest) worked for the Security Service as an officer or agent. We cannot confirm or deny this in any cases where the person is still alive, as this could endanger them or the people with whom they worked.

If you believe that a deceased member of your family worked for the Service, please see our "Contact Us" page for details of how to send us a letter or e-mail. You will need to provide details of your relative and the purpose of your enquiry. We shall then consider all the circumstances of the case and what information may be released.

Key points

  • An agent is anyone able to provide intelligence that assists our investigations.
  • Security Service staff are called officers, not agents.
  • Strict legal framework apply to our use of agents.
  • Agents' safety is paramount - identities are protected and personal welfare looked after.

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