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Spies aren’t who you think they are

The world is seeing a resurgence in the use of espionage as nations try to get inside information on each other. Beijing accused the United Kingdom of recruiting spies in China, just after British authorities charged two men with violating the Official Secrets Act on behalf of Beijing.

Meanwhile, two men were recently arrested for spying for Russia in Germany, and the US intelligence services are working hard to recruit Kremlin insiders who want to work with them.

For the vast majority of the public, their perception of intelligence work has been shaped by the ever-popular genre of spy fiction.

James Bond, an invention of British author Ian Fleming, was an intelligence officer, who worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, and was able to go undercover in various guises, often with the help of futuristic gadgets. Portrayals of spies and spying are still frequently associated with Bond-like suave characters who smoothly navigate diplomatic receptions.

In fiction, they use these (as well as more martial talents), to get to the secrets they have been dispatched to find. This archetype is familiar from spy novels, films and TV series. It is completely misleading and at the same time not entirely removed from the truth.

Intelligence as a career

One problem is that in both news reporting and English vernacular, the word “spy” is used to describe both intelligence officers and those they recruit. It is not uncommon for (English-speaking) intelligence officers to accept the label and Bond comparisons. So, these mistakes are easy to make, but the intelligence officer and the recruited spy are not the same.

Perhaps the most crucial difference is that an intelligence officer has chosen a career. A potentially