MI5 - Security Service

What is espionage?

Although people often confuse espionage with intelligence, they are not the same thing.

  • Intelligence is information of all sorts gathered by a government or organisation to guide its decisions. It includes information that may be both public and private, obtained from many different public or secret sources. It could consist entirely of information from either publicly available or secret sources, or be a combination of the two.
  • Espionage is a process which involves human sources (agents) or technical means to obtain information which is not normally publically available. lt may also involve seeking to influence decision makers and opinion-formers to benefit the interests of a foreign power.

The gathering of publicly available information is a routine activity of diplomatic staff, military attaches and trade delegations. They use open sources such as the media, conferences, diplomatic events and trade fairs as well as open contacts with representatives of host governments. This enables them to monitor political, economic and military developments in their host country and brief their own governments. Foreign representatives thereby help their governments to shape their foreign, commercial and military policies. This type of work is not harmful to our national interests. In fact, it often helps us to build good relationships with other nations.

By definition, espionage focuses normally on non-public information gathered through covert means. Classified information is kept secret in the first place because of its potential to harm national security, jeopardise the country's economic well-being or damage international relations. Its sensitivity makes it necessary for us to protect it but also makes it attractive to spies.

If such information is obtained by those who have no right to access it, serious damage can be caused in a number of fields. For instance, other countries are seeking technical details of weapons systems so that they can find ways of neutralising our military advantages. Information on key services such as gas, oil and transport could enable terrorists to seriously damage these important economic targets. And the theft of classified technologies could enable foreign companies to copy them, threatening British national security and jobs.

Countering this threat is thus a key priority for the Security Service.

Key points

  • Difference between espionage and intelligence - not the same thing!
  • Espionage presents a serious threat to national security of the UK.
  • Counter-espionage is a key priority for MI5.

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