Covert Human Intelligence Sources

What is a Covert Human Intelligence Source?

Covert Human Intelligence Sources, also known as ‘agents’, provide some of our most important information and are critical to our efforts to keep the UK safe. They 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, as well as helping us to frustrate attempts by states to undermine our nation's security. 

Although we are not able to publicly recognise individuals who help us in this way, it is no exaggeration to say that they really are unsung heroes. 

The safety of our agents is a top priority for MI5. Anything we ask them to do is carefully planned in advance to identify and minimise any potential risk, and we never ask anyone to do something that they are not willing to do. 

Agents and case officers also work within a strict legal framework that puts limits on what they can and cannot do. Agents are not formally employed by MI5. We refer to our employed staff as 'officers'. If you are interested in working for MI5, please visit our careers pages. 

If I become an agent, what might I be asked to do? 

Nothing that you don't want to. All our agents are volunteers and the way each agent works with MI5 is unique. You may be asked to help by sharing information you already know. 

You may also be asked to seek new information - in this instance, you would work with your case officer on how to safely get the information we need which could help prevent things such as future acts of terrorism or espionage. 

We work closely with our agents to make sure they can manage what we are asking them to do. You would discuss with your case officer how and when you could help, fitting in with your work or family commitments. 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? 

We could not keep the UK and its people safe without the help of our agents. Everyone who works with us can take pride in knowing they’re part of a team working to prevent loss of life and protect all the members of our society. 

Although we would never publicly name our agents, there are many ways in which we recognise the important role they play. In some cases that includes money - we would certainly not expect someone to be out of pocket for agreeing to help. For many, the reward comes from the opportunity to help someone they know who may be in trouble, or being able to keep others safe. 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 our agents very seriously and anything we ask you to do will be carefully planned in advance to identify and minimise any potential risk. We have a legal and moral responsibility to protect the safety and security of our agents, including keeping their identities confidential, even after they stop being an agent. 

All our case officers undergo extensive training, a major part of which involves ensuring the safety of the agents they work with. Agents develop a strong relationship with their case officer that enables a frank discussion about how best to achieve any objective. Both sides need to be open about what can and cannot be achieved or managed, working together to develop a plan to get the information. All meetings with case officers are carried out securely and when meetings are not possible, we will agree other secure methods of contact. 

How do I know what I am being asked to do is OK and legal? 

Part II of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 provides the legal basis for MI5’s use of agents. Case officers 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 then 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 Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), which carries out checks to ensure we are acting in accordance with the law and the code of practice. IPCO publishes annual reports about their activities and findings. 

How do I know an approach is genuine? 

If you’re concerned whether an approach is real or not, ask for proof that they’re a genuine member of staff. They 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 help us. Such activity would be unlawful and out of keeping with our values. 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 undermine this. 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 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 state threats. 

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 people we talk to could have been involved in extremism or criminal activities. 

Who can I tell what I am doing? 

We take the security of those who work with us very seriously. One way we protect you is by strictly limiting who we tell about our relationship. We would never publicly confirm the existence of that relationship and would ask you to limit who you tell as well. On the whole, people also prefer to keep our relationship to themselves. However, if you wanted or needed to tell someone, your case officer would discuss the pros and cons so that you can work out together whether you should do so.