Espionage Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Espionage, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Espionage?

n. the crime of spying on the federal government and/or transferring state secrets on behalf of a foreign country. The other country need not be an “enemy,” so espionage may not be treason, which involves aiding an enemy.

History and Meaning of Espionage

Espionage is a term that first emerged in the 18th century and is derived from the French word "espionnage," which means "spying." It is defined as the illegal act of gathering and relaying classified, confidential, or sensitive information without authorization, typically on behalf of a foreign government or its agents. Espionage is considered a serious crime in many countries, and those who engage in it can face severe legal consequences.

The practice of espionage dates back to ancient times, with examples of spies being utilized by rulers and military leaders in various regions around the world. In more recent history, espionage has played a significant role in international conflicts, particularly during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, espionage remains a prominent issue in global politics and national security.

Examples of Espionage

  1. Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, was charged with espionage in 2013 after leaking classified information about US surveillance programs to the media.

  2. The Cambridge Five were a group of British spies who worked for the Soviet Union during World War II and continued to pass classified information in the post-war years.

  3. The Chinese intelligence services have been accused of carrying out espionage against the United States and other countries, using both cyberattacks and human agents.

Legal Terms Similar to Espionage

  1. Treason: This term refers to the act of betraying one’s country or aiding its enemies, typically by engaging in acts of espionage or sabotage.

  2. Sabotage: Sabotage involves the deliberate destruction, disruption, or damage of property, equipment, or systems, often for political or economic gain.

  3. Cyber espionage: This term describes the use of computer networks and digital technology to gather intelligence and sensitive information from targeted organizations or individuals.