Espionage involves stealing non-public information that could compromise national security or jeopardize a country’s economic well-being. This specialized type of intelligence collection activity is often carried out by foreign agents.


Disgruntled employees and competitors may hire away company staff to obtain the valuable trade secrets they acquire on the job. This is known as industrial espionage.

Industrial Espionage

Companies in many industries are subject to industrial espionage, especially technology-focused businesses that spend a lot of money on R&D and face immense pressures to get new products to market. This makes them a prime target for foreign governments and private competitors.

Cyber espionage is the most common form of industrial espionage today. Attackers use a variety of methods, including wiretapping through the Internet (such as through the weak security offered by an IPv6 address), man-in-the-middle attacks using a lack of SSL, gaining access to a competitor’s internal computer network by exploiting poor IT practices, and changing or hacking a competitor’s domain name registration.

In some cases, disgruntled employees commit industrial espionage to benefit themselves and their next employer. They may steal valuable trade secrets or intellectual property to sell on the open market, or they may divert or reroute products meant for export by altering them or falsifying end-user certificates. Moreover, companies with large business contracts often act as fronts for importing embargoed products or services for delivery to third parties.

Foreign governments also engage in economic espionage to obtain proprietary economic information and critical technologies at a fraction of the cost of the original research and development costs. This type of espionage is more difficult to prosecute and can be conducted through various channels, including government spies, domestic spies or even by private citizens acting on their behalf.

Military Espionage

Military espionage involves gathering intelligence related to the size and strength of an enemy’s armed forces, and the technology they possess. Spies (espionage agents) can gather a wealth of information by clandestinely infiltrating an enemy’s ranks, and can also encourage dissidents within the army to defect. Spies can also provide information on the location of weapons or other valuable assets, and are often employed to steal technology from an enemy’s military or civilian resources.

While most military spies are recruited from active duty personnel, some are recruited from the reserves or from civilian jobs. Those who work in the civilian world may be called HUMINT, or human intelligence, collectors. HUMINT collection responsibilities are split into overt collectors like strategic debriefers and military attaches, and covert collectors including spies. Other important collection responsibilities are assigned to OSINT, or open source intelligence, a category that includes information from radio and television, newspapers, magazines, commercial databases, videos, graphics and drawings.

As the need for military intelligence became more pressing, national and international governments established dedicated intelligence agencies to conduct espionage on their behalf. By the outbreak of the First World War, most major powers had highly sophisticated structures in place. In America, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (forerunner to the FBI) took on a counterintelligence role in 1916, and Congress passed the first federal espionage law in 1917.

Political Espionage

In times of war, governments often engage in political espionage. This is done by infiltrating enemy organizations to obtain information, such as the size of an enemy army. This intelligence is used to plan counter-attacks and retaliation. It also helps to identify dissidents within the enemy organization. Spies can also steal technology from the enemy and sabotage it in various ways. To counter such activity, most states have anti-espionage laws and agencies that prosecute those caught. Former CIA analyst Daniel Ellsberg, for example, was prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing classified documents to the New York Times and other news outlets in 1973.

Aside from the issues related to sabotage and theft, political espionage can be dangerous to international stability. It can create distrust between countries as they strive to catch one another in a never-ending game of cat and mouse. The risk of such instability is heightened as cyber technology continues to evolve into cyber warfare, in which states use computers and networks to attack one another.

It remains difficult for the international community to regulate a broad range of activities that fall under the ambiguous umbrella of espionage. The traditional functional and realist rationales that support a lack of regulation in this area seem unsustainable as technological advances transform espionage into something more indistinguishable from low-level war.

Cyber Espionage

Cyber espionage refers to the unauthorized access, theft and disclosure of confidential data, intellectual property or information. These activities can impact individuals, large businesses and even nations.

Hackers typically use various methods to commit these crimes. Many attacks start with a specific target in mind. For example, they may target a government body, agency or department because such entities sit on a goldmine of data that hackers can use for their own gain. The most common form of this type of attack is spear phishing, which involves the use of corrupted emails, phones and texts to steal valid login credentials.

The use of trojan apps is another popular way of carrying out a cyber espionage attack. These apps are essentially fake programs that contain malware, and hackers can then convince their targets to download them. These apps are often spotted in unofficial app stores, and they can even evade the usual approval procedure to exist in such stores.

In addition to these types of attacks, hackers also try to infect physical devices with malicious code. This is because they want to manipulate the device’s function and make it more vulnerable. They may also use this technique to spread disinformation or propaganda. For example, they may try to alter the results of an election in a country like Finland or spread lies about a certain group.