Protection from Threats


Espionage has been described as the “world’s second oldest profession”. As stated in The Threats section of this website, many countries still make extensive use of espionage against the UK.

This page provides an overview of the main risks from espionage for potential targets travelling or working overseas, together with advice on the steps you can take to minimise the risks.

Espionage can damage UK national security in a number of ways. The loss of military secrets can, for example, damage strategic military interests and endanger the lives of British troops overseas. The covert or unauthorised acquisition of our scientific research, industrial and computer technology can also harm the UK‘s defences, economic well-being and national infrastructure.

Foreign intelligence services typically seek intelligence on:

  • political and diplomatic decision-making;
  • military intentions and capabilities;
  • economic and financial policies;
  • cutting-edge technologies and associated research and development data;
  • dissidents.

The UK is a priority espionage target for many foreign intelligence services, because of its role in the UN, NATO and the EU, and its position as a major player in the field of science and technology. Espionage activity against UK interests takes place overseas as well as in the UK.

Foreign intelligence and security services will try to fulfil their intelligence requirements by targeting those individuals best placed to help them. These include:

  • diplomats;
  • military personnel;
  • civil servants;
  • politicians and their advisors;
  • police and customs officers;
  • scientists or employees of high-tech companies;
  • academics;
  • business men and women working in relevant industries;
  • expatriates.

If you believe you fit the profile of someone who might attract the attention of a foreign intelligence service, consider the following guidance.

Before you travel overseas in an official capacity

The potential threat from espionage varies from country to country. Government officials and staff of companies working with the Government on sensitive contracts should establish whether there is an espionage threat in the country to which they are travelling. Speak to the Security Co-ordinator of your department or organisation to discuss the particular level of threat in the country you are visiting.

If you are travelling to a country where there is a threat of espionage:

what you can do

  • Avoid taking any protectively marked (classified) or commercially sensitive information with you unless it is essential for the purposes of your visit. If it is, discuss with your Security Co-ordinator how to protect it both when travelling, e.g. in hand luggage when flying, and during your stay.
  • Avoid taking unnecessary personal information with you, e.g. bank statements and address books, as they reveal details about your lifestyle which could be used to target you more effectively.

While you are overseas

A security or intelligence service may use a variety of techniques to target a foreign national travelling to or posted to their country. These include intercepting telephone calls (both land line and mobile), computer equipment, (laptops, palmtops, personal digital assistants), emails, fax, telex and post; planting eavesdropping devices; direct surveillance; or covert searching of hotel rooms (including safes) and offices.

Lavish hospitality, flattery and the “red carpet” treatment are used by some intelligence services to soften up a target for recruitment who may then feel obliged to co-operate rather than offend the hosts.

In general:

what you can do

  • Be aware that in some countries hotel staff and taxi drivers may be required to report the activity of foreign visitors to the local security service.
  • Be aware that those you come into contact with professionally or personally could later be interviewed by the local security service. Any information you give to your contacts, e.g. your UK home address, telephone or email address, could be compromised.
  • Do not leave sensitive material unattended in your hotel room or at conference venues. Do not throw any sensitive information in the waste bin where it could be retrieved. Bring it back to the UK with you, if it cannot be shredded whilst you are overseas.
  • If you have computer equipment with you, lock it away securely or make sure it is properly protected when left unattended. It should be properly protected by passwords which should not be written down. Virus protection and firewalls should be kept up-to-date. (See also “IT Security“).
  • Be aware of local laws on social and sexual behaviour (refer to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s country-specific travel advice), make sure you obey them and avoid any compromising behaviour which could make you vulnerable to subsequent blackmail.
  • Avoid discussing sensitive aspects of your business in areas where conversations could be overheard, or on the telephone. Eavesdropping devices could be used or your telephone calls intercepted. International calls are particularly vulnerable to remote interception.
  • Do not hesitate to report any suspicious incidents to your organisation’s Security Co-ordinator and/or the nearest British Mission, however trivial it may seem. Also, if you are required to report intimate relationships with the nationals of certain countries to your Security Co-ordinator, make sure you do so promptly and honestly.

On your return to the UK

what you can do

  • Be alert to the warning signs that you are being “cultivated” for recruitment by a foreign intelligence service. These include:
  • unexpected emails from the contacts in the foreign country, or their “colleagues/friends” seeking to establish contact;
  • cold calling by foreign official or business contacts who may arrive unannounced at your office saying that they were “in the area”;
  • a preference for face-to-face meetings;
  • avoidance of official premises such as an embassy;
  • requests to meet in hotels, bars and restaurants, rather than at your place of work;
  • requests for openly available information which, when received, is then rewarded with small gifts or payment;
  • further requests over time for more sensitive information;
  • personal questions;
  • moves to bring the relationship onto a social footing.

(See also: “Espionage: Operating Techniques“).

If you are concerned that you may have been the subject of espionage interest overseas, report the matter to your organisation’s Security Co-ordinator, if you have one, or the police, as soon as possible.

Suspected activity by foreign security and intelligence services should also be reported to the Security Service – see the “How you can help” page.

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