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It's well-known that even "friendly" or "allied" countries regularly spy on each other. Considering this, I started to wonder whether sub-national entities spy on each other too. Is there any precedent for this?

For a hypothetical, maybe the Texas Ranger Division plants a mole in the California Highway Patrol to leak California law enforcement-sensitive data to Texas intelligence officials, and California hires tech pros to hack Texas school servers to steal curriculum updates and pedagogical best-practices before they are made public. This could happen in non-US countries too, perhaps there is a young person right now beginning his career as a sleeper agent in the Ontario Ministry of Health with true loyalty to Nova Scotia and ready to activate on a coded signal to leak data or even commit sabotage.

Does this sort of thing ever actually happen, or is sub-national spying just not a thing?

Discussion:

In response to a comment by CGCampbell yes, interstate travel to obtain abortions could be relevant to this. With news that California intends to become a "sanctuary" state to shield out-of-staters from reproductive and gender oppression, it makes sense that one of those states might want to spy on Cali to find out which of their wayward citizens are receiving services there in order to craft the perfect extradition demands.

In response to a comment by User65535, I would be hesitant to allow cases where one administrative arm of a government "spied" on another administrative arm of the same jurisdictional government (e.g. the Ontario Ministry of Health spying on the Ontario Provincial Police). Normally, the political principle of "Checks and Balances" provides that governmental agencies can, and often should, keep tabs on what other agencies are doing. I could allow it in cases where the alleged spying went far beyond the agency's mandate rather than just consisting of some official taking their job a little too seriously and slightly horning in on the target agency's racket. I will omit military coups since they are somewhat common and easy to research.

In terms of what qualifies as true "espionage" versus simple information gathering or research, I would generally say that espionage necessarily involves acts that are physically, legally, or politically risky to the agent performing the act and/or the jurisdiction sponsoring it. For example, California sending young-ish looking California Highway Patrol officers into Nevada with forged Nevada residency documents with orders to fraudulently enroll in Nevada public high schools and gather intelligence on Nevada educational practices would most likely violate Nevada law, expose the agents to imprisonment by Nevada, and thus qualify as espionage. Sending agents to drive around other jurisdictions and document what they see happening on the street normally wouldn't qualify as espionage under this definition since no laws would be being broken and the political fallout of the discovery of this by the target jurisdiction would likely be minimal.

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  • Couldn't they just ask for the information if they needed it? On the other hand, is calling somebody you know and asking that person some discrete questions already considered spying? May 11, 2022 at 13:31
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    What data would would one state need from another state so much that it would need to break laws to steal it? I might be wrong but if someone got caught doing that wouldn't the risk be accusations of spying for a foreign country that could be hard to deal with?
    – Joe W
    May 11, 2022 at 13:35
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    The Clockwork Orange plot saw one arm of the state (the intelegence services) spying on another (the Prime Minister). Does that meet your expectations?
    – User65535
    May 11, 2022 at 13:39
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    This kind of sounds far-fetched, however reading about some of the proposed efforts that certain states (i.e. Missouri, Texas, etc) are preparing to go to to ensure their citizens can't travel to neighboring states to receive abortions in the event Roe gets overturned... not so much.
    – CGCampbell
    May 11, 2022 at 14:53
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    @CGCampbell yes, I was thinking of that myself. With news that California intends to become a "sanctuary" state to shield out-of-staters from reproductive and gender oppression, it makes sense that one of those states might want to spy on Cali to find out which of their wayward citizens are receiving services there in order to craft the perfect extradition demands. May 11, 2022 at 15:29

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It's the information age: spying is everywhere...

That being said, spying on the national level is almost always concerned with security. National governments are worried about military movements, terrorist activities, infrastructure attacks, or other activities that can inflict destruction on the nation or be used to inflict destruction on others. It's a serious business that governments are willing to invest a lot of collective time and money into.

Sub-national units — state and local governments, bureaucratic agencies, elected officials and their parties, etc. — are obviously interested in what other political and governmental players are thinking and doing, but the motivations are different. Such people and groups are usually looking for political advantages, increased funding, pride-of-place, and similar non-destructive, egoistic agendas. This is closer to corporate espionage than a full-on war game, so actors are less willing to invest time and resources. While some individuals are willing to invest significant portions of their lives undercover to protect their nation from harm, there is no incentive (akin to national loyalty or patriotism) that would convince someone to do the same for (say) a governor's office or a federal agency. Thus lower-level 'spying' (such as it is) won't normally involve anything more sophisticated that schmoozing, wheedling, bribing, headhunting, hacking, or perhaps blackmailing to get desired information.

Most political actors and groups these days have dedicated information-gathering arms doing opposition research; every experienced bureaucrat has his ear to the ground and his hand in a few people's pockets trying to stay ahead of the political curve. But there are both practical and legal limits on how far such things can go.

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I don't know for sure, but it seems like such spying is generally not needed.

Spying usually occurs between nations because they keep information secret for national security reasons. Even allies are careful about how much critical information they share with each other -- the more you share, the more likely it is to leak to an adversary. It's also possible that an ally may in the future become an adversary; even if they don't become enemies, you may compete with them for international trade.

On the other hand, there's rarely any competition between sub-national government organizations. What would Texas gain by not sharing their curriculum with California? It's not even a secret, since it has to be published for all the schools to implement it. It's not like there's a fixed amount of federal subsidies and each state is competing for a larger share; that's not usually how these subsidies work.

There are some exceptions. Security-related organizations like the CIA, FBI, and NSA tend to be very secretive, but they would likely each be better off if they knew what the others knew, so there may be some spying between them. The creation of the umbrella Department of Homeland Security was supposed to improve routine communication and coordination among these organizations; the success of the 9/11 attacks is partly blamed on the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing, and prompted this reorganization.

There are some rare cases where states compete for business, such as the location of large business operations. A few years ago Amazon was looking for a home for a new headquarter, which would result in thousands of jobs in the area. Many states were competing by offering tax incentives if Amazon would locate it there. They would presumably keep these offers secret from each other, and similarly try to spy on each other to find out what they need to offer to get the business.

But other than these exceptions, we're mostly "united states", and "we're all in this together" applies.

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  • One case would be where states are competing to provide homes to businesses or government agencies, or to win major government projects. Recall the competition over where Amazon's HQ would be based which saw states competing to offer incentives to Amazon: knowing what other states were offering or might offer would provide an advantage in negotiation.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 28, 2022 at 10:19
  • Good point, I'll add that.
    – Barmar
    Jun 28, 2022 at 13:56
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Does this sort of thing ever actually happen, or is sub-national spying just not a thing?

Not a thing.

It could be done (it wouldn't be terribly hard), but it is very rarely needed.

Most relevant information is a matter of public record or can be obtained with a FOIA/Open Records request. And, usually, states have little or nothing to gain from spying on each other, as well as an ingrained corporate culture of acting lawfully.

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