Countering state threats

What are state threats?

State threats are overt or covert actions by foreign governments which fall short of direct armed conflict with the UK but go beyond peaceful diplomacy and expected statecraft to harm or threaten the safety or interests of the UK or our allies. 

What risk do state threats pose? 

State threats present a real and evolving risk to the UK. They can manifest in a range of forms. These include attempts to: 

  • steal sensitive information through espionage or cyber attacks 
  • threaten the public’s safety, including through physical violence or assassinations 
  • harm our prosperity 
  • undermine our values and freedoms 

Those acting on behalf of foreign states may also seek to interfere with UK democracy and democratic institutions. For example, this could involve covert or coercive influencing of political figures and the use of disinformation. Disinformation is the deliberate dissemination of false and/or manipulated information. Both of these examples have the potential to be used in an attempt to cause harm or to achieve political aims which undermine the UK’s national security.

State threats do not only materialise against government and intelligence agencies. Some states are particularly interested in industrial or commercial information which could be used to support their own economy or military. This information may not be “classified” or an obvious target for espionage. 

States may seek to exploit foreign direct investment, academic partnerships and supply chains to gain access to sensitive information. 

Who poses a threat? 

Intelligence officers working for other countries under diplomatic cover are what lots of people think of when they think of “spies”. Whilst that is often the case, the reality is more complex. Individuals or groups seeking to harm the UK’s national security could be posing as businesspeople, recruitment consultants or journalists but in reality are seeking to act on behalf of another state to gather information or conduct other activity against the UK’s interests. States may also task criminal gangs or private security companies to conduct activity on their behalf.  

What information are other countries’ “spies” looking for? 

Intelligence services targeting the UK seek to understand: 

Business information 

This includes information on companies' products and plans. State actors could seek to fast track their own technological capabilities or increase their military advantage. Examples of industries in which states show particular interest include advanced materials, biotech, and artificial intelligence. 


Academic research, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), dual-use technologies, emerging technology and other commercially sensitive areas could be of interest to other states. As with business information, state actors could seek to exploit research to improve their own technological or military capabilities. 

Political information 

This could include confidential governmental or political information, including negotiating positions, sensitive economic information and details of policy developments. Foreign governments could use such information to gain advantage in areas such as international relations and intelligence operations. 

Military information 

This could include technical information about weapons, details of where troops are located and information on defences. This could be especially useful to our adversaries, helping them to find weak points or launch surprise attacks. 

Activities of dissidents 

The UK has a long tradition of political tolerance that has meant many people persecuted for their beliefs have made their home here over the years. Some foreign governments target these dissident movements and individuals in the UK that they see as a threat to their control at home. Their activity could include gathering information, intimidation or even serious physical threats, including assassinations.

What is the threat online?

State threats exist online and offline. While a wide range of hostile actors use the internet to target people in the UK, state actors are well equipped to conduct the most damaging online operations. States and other hostile actors may look to steal information remotely. They can do this cheaply and on an industrial scale with relatively little risk to their intelligence officers or overseas agents. They may also use malicious software, also known as malware, to disrupt and damage infrastructure. This can range from taking a website offline to manipulating industrial systems. 

The National Cyber Security Centre, part of GCHQ, provides advice to businesses, other organisations and the public about cyber security.

How does MI5 respond to state threats? 

Some of our work includes to disrupt those trying to pass sensitive information to other countries and prevent activity whereby other states seek to damage our national security. Our methods of disruption will vary. They can include working with the police to see those found to be committing a crime arrested, charged and prosecuted. Often, it involves alerting someone that a foreign intelligence service may want to recruit them. We advise on how to avoid or deal with such an approach if it happens.

National Protective Security Authority

We also seek to make it more difficult for foreign intelligence services to operate in the UK. We do this by providing security advice to companies and organisations that have the kind of sought-after information and equipment they want through our protective security arm, the National Protective Security Authority.

There are numerous criminal offences relating to state threats, including those created under the National Security Act 2023 and we will work with the police to investigate and disrupt those who may be breaking the law.

Working to respond to state threats is not just a matter for MI5. We also work alongside the UK’s other intelligence agencies, SIS and GCHQ, the police and other security and intelligence organisations in the UK and overseas. We also work closely with the government and private sector too.

Find out more about the NPSA
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Work in state threats

By joining MI5, you can contribute directly to countering state threats. 

We have a range of roles – from working on investigations to intelligence gathering, agent handling and more – that will put you at the cutting edge of keeping the country safe. 

Find out more about working for MI5 and as well as our current opportunities.