This might be my perception being biased from what media is reporting about.

But how I see it, here in Germany it is usually reported in media like:

"Spy [Name] was convicted of having transfered [SensitiveData] to [SecretService] of [State]. This means [Impact]. He will now face [JudicialMeasures]"

But while I understand that such activity can't be kept unpunished, as otherwise you had nothing to loose if you just hoarded any sensitive data you ever had access to.... just in case. I still don't understand why the focus is on punishing the spy, rather than the client state. I mean the spy acts either because he has gains from it, or even worse, someone holds information to blackmail him into making use of his access to specific data. So by punishing him for doing it, you got rid of a single person that was willing to execute this activity, but it is safe to assume that the client has still the same amount of interest in getting access to sensitive data and will most likely try to find another channel to obtain such data. And by rarely, if at all reacting politically on these attempts, as long they are not getting revealed en mass, I can't see how taking measures against individuals has any real impact at all, considering that not rarely it is foreign states financing the acquisition of such data, and with such resources, they probably will always be able to find others be willing to do that job, given the right pressure/payment. So I don't understand the rationale behind this.

So my question is: Is espionage internationally tolerated or, if not, what are political measures being taken to prevent or at least protect against it?

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    Surely nobody likes to being spied upon. It probably is illegal too. Taking measures against individuals has some values, increases the costs for the other side. What else do you propose to do? Declaring war on everyone who is spying? Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 13:31
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    @Trilarion: What else to do is actually kind of part of my question. Or why not doing something else. Dunno.... but AFAIK there are other political instruments in between doing nothing and declaring war ;) And given any other instrument than "doing nothing" would be considered overkill, that's how I here define "it being tolerated" If my wording is confusing in that regards, I am open for proposing an edit. :)
    – dhein
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:19
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    You could maybe ask what means democratic countries use to efficiently fight international espionage? Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:27
  • @Trilarion: you are right! I just realize that my way of phrasing it in a way to rant on the way medias report about it actually made it less clear what I was actually asking about. As in a break down, what you propose is pretty much what I intended to ask.
    – dhein
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:34

2 Answers 2


There are three levels to state "espionage":

1: Open data gathering. Embassy staff (possibly including local employees) buy newspapers and maps, visit companies and trade shows, and generally talk to people openly. This is perfectly legal in most places, although in some states the line between "public" and "secret" is a lot fuzzier; e.g. trying to get an accurate inflation figure by monitoring prices might be considered economic espionage if the government doesn't want the real number known.

2: Covert data gathering by accredited diplomats. People with diplomatic immunity cannot be arrested even if they break the law. So if, for instance, if a diplomat plants a bug when visiting a factory in order to spy on boardroom discussions, that is illegal, but the only thing the host nation can do is eject the diplomat. Everybody does stuff like this, and its not really worth ejecting the "guilty" diplomat because then you will just have to monitor his successor. So this is "tolerated" in the sense that nobody bothers trying to punish the guilty party; they just make it as hard as possible to get any information.

3: Covert data gathering and influencing of local affairs via local covert agents. These are the people who get arrested and thrown in prison for decades. The people who were paying them are accredited diplomats: see (2) above.

Everybody respects diplomatic immunity because otherwise nobody would risk sending their diplomats to you: while it is widely abused, allowing the local police to arrest a diplomat puts them at great risk of being held hostage by an unfriendly host state under false charges. Also if a diplomat commits a serious crime outside of their duties then their government may decide to waive diplomatic immunity, allowing the criminal to be arrested.

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    I think this leaves open the question of why diplomatic immunity is respected, given that it is abused in this way. It's not physically true that "the only thing you can do is eject them and accept their successor", so there's a deeper dimension here. Even recourse to "international law says so" begs the question, because it would seem reasonable for international law to include provisions against espionage.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:44
  • Note, I edited the OP. But as I see it this shouldn't have changed the validity of this providing an answer to my question.
    – dhein
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:46
  • @IMSoP: Yeah, good point. That's actually too deep, that I would have come up with it myself, but that's pretty much the kind of info I am looking for.
    – dhein
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:50
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    Your examples of espionage mention only that which happens within the target country, which is excluding one of the biggest form of espionage. Spying on transmissions, via tapping wires once they leave the target country or listening to what is being broadcast to satellites/over air etc seems to be the primary form of 'spying' being done now of days. Since it isn't within the borders of the target country their laws don't apply, so the actions are nominally legal. Otherwise it falls closer to 2), everyone knows everyone else is doing it, they won't cause an international incident over it.
    – dsollen
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 19:12
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    @dsollen Not that signal intelligence hasn't sometimes lead to international incidents in its (fairly long) history. Qv the Zimmermann telegram, which is also an example of non-local covert information gathering. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zimmermann_Telegram#British_interception
    – origimbo
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 23:07

Reasons for punishing the spy include:

  1. To discourage other people from spying. If spies receive significant punishment, then people will be discouraged from becoming spies and those that do will demand more compensation from their masters, raising the cost to the spying country.

  2. It's hard to punish nation states. You can't send them to jail. You can demand that they pay you a fine but they'll just say no ("And, oh, by the way, you're spying on us too so..."). You can enforce trade sanctions but that usually hurts you, too, and doesn't achieve much unless lots of other countries join you, which they probably won't. You're probably not going to war to enforce your will on them.

Also, you're missing a significant motive for spying: the ideological beliefs of the spy. Many westerners who spied for the USSR did so because they believed that communism was the One True Way; many Soviet citizens who spied for the west did so because they felt that authoritarian government was wrong.

  • Yes and no. The most damaging western spies for the Soviet Union were turned by the payment for their services rather than the actual beliefs in Communism over capitalism. Spies against the Soviet Union were turned by having a case worker discuss the possibility of espionage while inside a Supermarket... the lack of shortages in the west weighed a lot more. That is not to say that ideological spies are not a thing, but that they are often more damaging and harder to track than spies motivated by financial means because they don't require payment for services and thus, can better hide.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 14:56

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