4 Big Misconceptions About Spies

Sophisticated and fool-proof.
Sophisticated and fool-proof. / Maciej Toporowicz, NYC/Moment/Getty Images

The Insectothopter was designed by the CIA in the ‘70s and could fly via remote control up to 650 feet. The spy gadget looked like an ordinary dragonfly, but hidden inside the high-tech bug was a tiny microphone meant to eavesdrop on unsuspecting baddies. A flying bug disguised as a bug. Brilliant!

While the Insectothopter was never actually deployed, it is one of many real-life gadgets and gizmos that were designed to be used by spies—and which have been replaced by boring old computers today. Let’s look a few misconceptions about spies and espionage, adapted from Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: Countries only spy on their enemies.

Spies spy on bad guys. That seems like the no. 1 rule of spying. If the goal is to painstakingly obtain important intel about a foreign group, military, or government, the best use of all those resources and money would be if that intel involved a potentially dangerous country—not one of our closest allies. 

That hasn’t always been the case, though. Following the end of World War II, the UKUSA Agreement marked a new era of intelligence operations comradeship. The agreement currently involves Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which are collectively known as the Five Eyes. These five powers agreed to share their sensitive intelligence, and in turn, probably not spy on each other. This agreement was kept so secret that it wasn’t made public until 2010, almost 60 years after its founding. But for that whole time, these five nations, and specifically the UK and the US, have worked together and shared their intel for the “greater good.”

Even the strongest of friendships comes with a healthy dose of paranoia. Countries spy on their allies all the time. This has been a practice since the dawn of espionage, and it’s never been more relevant than it is today. Intelligence operations are always most concerned with the safety of their own nation first, so if it’s in their best interest to spy on a country that’s technically their ally, so be it. The world was outraged when the U.S. was accused of bugging the German chancellor’s phone less than 10 years ago. But then it was later revealed that German intelligence officers had “accidentally” eavesdropped on the U.S. secretary of state. Charles Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, put it simply: “Everybody spies on everybody, including friends on friends.”

And even the unbreakable bonds of the Five Eyes are not exempt from this practice. It was revealed in 2013 that the members of the UKUSA Agreement very well might spy on each other, but not necessarily out of mistrust. Since there are many laws prohibiting governments from spying on their own citizens, some countries have used shady workarounds to gather such intel. Max Boot, a writer for Commentary said, “this intelligence sharing allows them to do an end-run around prohibitions on domestic surveillance: the Brits can spy on our citizens, we can spy on theirs, and then we can share the results.” In 2013 the National Security Agency denied these accusations, saying, “any allegation that NSA relies on its foreign partners to circumvent U.S. law is absolutely false. NSA does not ask its foreign partners to undertake any intelligence activity that the U.S. government would be legally prohibited from undertaking itself.” 

Even in instances of spying on enemy governments, espionage was not always entirely devious or violent. In fact, the other team’s spies were a welcome part of the not-quite-war. A series of agreements between Western countries and the Soviet Union allowed for what was essentially legal spying on both sides of the conflict. These so-called military liaison missions were meant to alleviate tensions between the opposing powers by bringing some of the clandestine activities of the Cold War into the relative open.

So if your perception of covert operatives only involves secret missions to evil enemy countries during wartime, you might be giving intelligence agencies more credit than they’re due.

2. Misconception: Spies are a modern concept

Black and white image of man searching through files from a filing cabinet with a flashlight
Spying has a long history. / Rick Gayle/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Most people, when hearing the word spy, imagine a distinctly modern agent. This could be either the heavily fictionalized James Bond or the image of a stereotypical Cold War-era spy, trench coats and all. But even among spy fiction, this timeline is off. One of the first examples of of modern spy fiction is a book called, appropriately, The Spy, written by James Fenimore Cooper in 1821. But American history buffs and fans of the Broadway musical Hamilton know that spies were crucial during the Revolutionary War—George Washington’s Culper Ring helped thwart British surprise attacks and capture enemy spies, among other things.

Spies go even further back: stories about them appear in the Bible. In the Book of Numbers, there’s the story of the Twelve Spies, in which Israelite chieftains travel to Canaan to obtain information for Moses. In the Book of Joshua, two spies are sent to Jericho and get an assist from a mysterious woman who may or may not be a prostitute (a scenario you find in modern spy novels). 

Many attribute the first known use of espionage to the ancient Egyptians. Pharaohs employed spies to acquire intelligence and protect themselves from foreign enemies. They are even credited with using many of the same tactics spies are associated with today, such as coded messages, clothing with hidden compartments, and disappearing ink. 

Many other groups, such as the Hittites in the 13th century BCE, developed their own espionage networks, sometimes in direct response to Egypt’s growing spy network. The Greeks and Romans each developed their own spy tactics, which included secret and efficient communication between city-states, the creation of alliances, and planning surprise attacks. 

In 4th century BCE India, the royal advisor Chanakya wrote Arthashastra, a statecraft manual. It detailed the important processes of intelligence collection by and for powerful states, with passages giving comically specific details on possible spies. For example, “a man with shaved head or braided hair and desirous to earn livelihood is a spy under the guise of an ascetic practicing austerities.”

Feudal Japan used shinobi to spy on their enemies. Shinobi were ninjas, but the mythical lore surrounding this popular archetype is, additionally, full of many more misconceptions.

Queen Elizabeth I’s principal secretary Francis Walsingham became known as her spymaster, employing espionage tactics that would take other powerful nations years to adopt, such as the use of double agents and misinformation. Over the next few centuries, spies became essential to governments and monarchs. It was downright irresponsible to not have at least a couple people on payroll keeping an eye on your enemies. Or, your allies.

3. Misconception: All espionage is focused on national security.

Silhouette of a man in a fedora and trench coat in Red Square in Moscow, Russia
Our man in Moscow. / Grant Faint/Moment/Getty Images

Industrial and corporate espionage are two very active forms of intelligence gathering; money is a pretty big motivator to commit crimes, after all. These are conducted for commercial purposes instead of national security, and can include stealing trade secrets, snooping around for info on industrial manufacturing techniques, nabbing customer datasets, getting a peek into research and development, and finding out about prospective deals. 

While industrial espionage has really become rampant in the last few decades thanks to advances in technology and the nearly universal reliance on the internet and computers, it actually dates back a few hundred years. Some people claim the first industrial spy was Father Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, a Jesuit missionary who was sent from France to China on a special mission around the year 1700. While it appeared to be a typical mission trip, his superiors were also intensely curious about the Chinese process of making porcelain. D’Entrecolles spent over two decades in China’s porcelain-making capital, sleuthing and learning all he could about the manufacturing process and secrets. According to historian Robert Finlay, the letters containing all of his gathered information “represent one of the earliest and most calculated cases of an effort to implement mercantilist economic strategies of technology transfer.”

Nowadays, industrial espionage is mostly found in the tech world. Given the huge monetary value of intellectual property like algorithms and other software, Silicon Valley is a popular target. You better watch out when that curious new mustachioed janitor comes in to wipe down your desk: He might be stealing all of your company’s data at the request of your biggest competitor. (Or just doing his job.)

4. The Misconception: Espionage is a sophisticated, fool-proof government tactic.

Silhouette of man's feet in streetlight on a cobbled street
Sneaking through a dark alley: classic spycraft. / Sergi Escribano/Moment/Getty Images

Professional espionage is not without its failures. History is littered with very unintelligent uses of intelligence. During World War I, the British decrypting center Room 40 acquired useful intel about the enemy fleet during the Battle of Jutland. The intel was promptly ignored, and the battle, which could have been handily won, came to a costly draw.  

In 1941, Russian spy Richard Sorge gained intel about an approaching German invasion of Russia while sleuthing in Germany’s Embassy in Japan. Stalin rebuked the information, even going so far as to threaten anyone who believed it. This decision cost an untold number of lives. 

There’s even a wild tale from 1914 of French government officials using their decryption office, the cabinet noir, as a way to embarrass one another for political gain, and in turn preventing the intelligence officers from doing their actual jobs. The whole thing culminated with the former prime minister’s wife, Madame Henriette Caillaux, walking into the office of Gaston Calmette, the editor of a newspaper, who was believed to have decrypted messages that threatened her husband. She promptly drew a revolver and shot him dead. Her claim was that the newspaper was going to publish scandalous love letters between she and her husband while he was still married to his first wife, but the real threat was a series of intercepted German telegrams.

Finally, let us mention Operation Acoustic Kitty. In the ‘60s, the CIA developed a radio transmitter that could be surgically implanted in cats to spy on the Kremlin. In the first test mission, the cat reportedly ran across the street (with the intent of eavesdropping on two men standing outside a building) and was promptly run over by a taxi. Though CIA sources dispute the dead feline portion of the story, the project was scrapped soon after.