A database of U.S. espionage cases

Government project crunches data on 150 spy cases going back to 1940

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Image credit: Flickr/TR.ROBINSON


The leaking of details late last week regarding the U.S. government's surveillance operation by a technology contractor who since has fled to Hong Kong rekindles a debate about whether whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden are heroes or traitors.

While many Republicans are calling for Snowden to be extradited, privacy rights advocates continue to focus on the National Security Agency's gathering of telephone data from Verizon customers as well as data from users of major Internet service providers such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo.

As I was Googling surveillance-related topics this morning, the NSA guy who monitors my Internet activity steered me toward the Employees' Guide to Security Responsibilities on the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Departmental Management, the USDA's administrative management organization.

The guide is full of information -- all available to the public -- on protecting classified information, standards of personal conduct, protecting against having your communications intercepted (oh, the irony), etc.

It includes a section called Treason 101, which features articles such as "How Spies Are Caught," "Insider Threat to Information Systems" and "Exploring the Mind of the Spy." Also within the Treason 101 section of the USDA's website (and it really felt weird typing that) is an article titled "Espionage by the Numbers: A Statistical Overview."

The article explores data from the Espionage Database Project, an unclassified database maintained by the Defense Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC) that stores information on 150 cases going back to 1940. To make it into the database, people must have been "convicted or prosecuted for espionage or attempting to commit espionage, or if clear evidence of espionage is available in the public domain even though they were not prosecuted."

With the all-too-reasonable caveat that a "study of espionage based only on unclassified information has unavoidable limitations," here are some espionage data points:

* 93% of spies in the database are men

* The most common age range for a person to begin an espionage career is 20 to 29 (40%). But 44% of civilians were age 40 or over when they started spying, while 57% of military personnel began spying in their 20s.

* 84% of spies have been white, 6% black, 5% Hispanic and 5% other.

* 83% of people in the espionage database were born in the U.S.

* 64% of spies in the database "took the initiative in volunteering their services to a foreign intelligence service," the article says, while 15% "were recruited by a friend or family member, most of whom had themselves volunteered." Only 22% were approached by a foreign intelligence service. However, a higher percentage of military personnel (71%) than civilians (57%) volunteered to spy.

* Money was the primary motivator for 69% of people listed in the espionage database, and the sole motive for 56%. "Disgruntlement or revenge" toward either a current or former employer, another person or some situation was a motive for 27%, with ideology the driver for 22%. Another 12% sought the excitement of the spy lifestyle, while 4% were motivated by "a compelling need to be recognized and feel important."

On that last one, wouldn't espionage be the wrong business for someone seeking recognition?

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