Espionage - History and Methods of Spying

Espionage happens when people gather secret information on a country, an organization or individuals. Spies are specially trained people who do this. The information that is collected can be a country’s military secrets, facts about a person’s private life or even a firm’s production secrets.


History of espionage

Espionage is almost as old as mankind itself. Spies were common in all ancient cultures and civilizations. Ancient Egypt and Greece, as well as the Roman Empire employed spies to find out the secrets of their enemies.  In the Middle Ages, Queen Elizabeth I of England organized a spy network to gather information about Spain, her long-time enemy.

During the American Revolution George Washington set up a complicated network of spies to gather information about the British army. Both Unionists and Confederates used spies during the American Civil War.

During World War II the American Office of Strategic Services gathered information for the Allies . The organization, which was founded after the attacks on Pearl Harbour, later came to be known as the CIA, the most powerful intelligence agency in the world. Britain's notorious MI5 was a reliable organization that fed the Allies with information about Nazi Germany.  Thus, they were aware of what was happening in most of Europe.

During the Cold War, the CIA’s  counterpart was the Soviet KGB. During this period espionage was at its climax. It was very important to know what the enemy was thinking and what actions other countries were prepared to take. In fact, there were situations, like the Cuban missile crisis, in which espionage even helped to prevent a war.

After Communism collapsed in the 1990s espionage between east and west became less important.



Types of espionage and techniques



Spying is not only done on enemies, it includes gathering information about friendly countries as well. In the past few years, the CIA has been widely criticized for collecting secret information from American allies in Europe.

Espionage is not only political. Industrial espionage has become widespread in the last decades.  Company secrets are stolen in order to gain an advantage over a competitor. Military espionage involves stealing information on weapons and troop movements.

Today there are methods that help find out which information is important and which is not. Some countries have spy satellites that can take detailed images of everything that happens on the ground. Seismographs, normally used for collecting information on earthquakes, are used to detect nuclear bomb tests around the world. In addition, governments can listen in to personal calls on your cell phone or monitor everyday routines.

Spying often involves working secretly in foreign countries. In some cases, spies are employees at a foreign embassy or representatives of companies that have offices abroad.
When spies are caught, they face severe punishment. They are often expelled or await a trial and long prison sentences. In former times they were even executed.
During the Cold War spies were often exposed as double agents.  British spies were caught working for the KGB. In 1963, the most notorious, Kim Philby, fled to Moscow after he had caught spying for the Soviet Union.

Gathering intelligence has become especially important since 9/11.  The threat of terrorism has made it essential to get as much data as possible on terrorist cells and foreign governments that fund them.



Spy fiction

Spying has been a popular topic in books and films for some time.  The best known fictional character is James Bond, a master spy for her Majesty , the Queen.




Related Topics



  • advantage = here: to be better than or more successful than someone else
  • Allies = countries that fought together against Germany in World War II; they were the USA, the Soviet Union, France and Great Britain
  • ancient = old
  • attack = to use violence and weapons against a country
  • await = wait for
  • aware = alert, know
  • civil war = war in which two groups of the same country fight against each other
  • climax = high point, peak
  • collapse = break down
  • common = widespread, popular
  • competitor = here: company that produces and  sells the same things you do
  • Confederates = people of the southern states of the USA during the Civil War; they wanted to break away from the US and form a new country
  • counterpart = an organization that does the same things in another county
  • data = information
  • decade = ten years
  • detailed = very exact
  • detect = notice, find out about, discover
  • earthquake = when the earth’s crust shakes and causes a lot of damage
  • embassy =  group of officials who represent their country abroad , or the building they work in
  • employ = give someone a job
  • employee = a person who works for an organization or a company
  • espionage = the activity of secretly finding out information about someone and giving it to someone else
  • essential = very important
  • execute = to kill someone officially
  • expel = to make a person leave a country
  • expose = uncover, catch
  • face = deal with
  • feed – fed = here: give
  • fictional = not real; something or someone that only exists in books or films
  • firm = company
  • former times = many decades or centuries ago
  • found- founded = start something new
  • fund = give someone money
  • gain = get
  • gather = collect
  • image = picture, photo
  • in addition = also
  • include = contain, consist of
  • individual = single person
  • intelligence agency = organization that collects information about other countries
  • involve = include, to be about
  • long-time = for many years
  • mankind = people in  general
  • missile = rocket that can reach other countries and explode there
  • monitor = watch
  • network = system
  • notorious = famous
  • popular = well- known and liked by many people
  • prevent = stop something from happening
  • punishment = to make someone suffer because they have done something wrong
  • reliable = trustworthy, to be depended on
  • routine = the order in which you do things every day
  • satellite = object that you send into space and which is used for communication and gathering information
  • secret = only a few people know about something
  • seismograph = instrument that measures the movements of the Earth and where earthquakes happen
  • sentence = the punishment you get in court when you have committed a crime
  • severe = strict
  • threat = danger
  • thus = that is why
  • trial = an action in which a judge and a jury decides if someone is guilty of a crime
  • troops = soldiers
  • Unionists = people of the northern states, who wanted to do away with slavery during the Civil War
  • weapon = object you use to attack a person or fight a war, like a gun, knife or bomb
  • widely = very much
  • widespread= popular