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Because of this diversity, and of the absence of a single, general legal regime under international law, the problems raised by espionage require the examination of a different set of rules: sovereignty; nonintervention; use of force; sea, air, and space law; human rights; international economic law; international criminal law; etc.
International espionage consists of the access, on behalf of a state, to information that is held by another state and considered as confidential or strategic, in the military, security, or economic field.
This classical conception has evolved to also include surveillance programs implemented by intelligence agencies toward individuals as well as company-to-company industrial espionage.
The development of new technologies and communication media has, likewise, heightened possibilities for mass surveillance.
In June 2013, the revelations made by Edward Snowden, a former agent of the National Secret Agency (NSA), concerning the United States’ intelligence programs reinvigorated legal and political debate around espionage activities by states.
In legal scholarship, discussions have mainly focused on the legality of espionage under international human rights law.
Forms of espionage have become more diverse and sophisticated, involving a wide array of practices and actors.Three different positions can be found in doctrine.According to the majority opinion, there is no general prohibitive rule against espionage under international law.Whether as perpetrators or as victims, states are, in fact, rarely inclined to publicly communicate on the matter.This certainly explains most of the uncertainties that, in the early 21st century, continue to surround the international legal regime of espionage.Along the same lines, Baker 2003 contends that states actually see espionage as a means to foster international cooperation.These doctrinal divergences reflect the particular secretive nature of the state practice.The third view holds that espionage stands in a grey area of international law, as it is neither explicitly forbidden nor clearly authorized.Yoo and Sulmasy 2007 argues that this is because states do not have an interest in regulating espionage, as doing so would hinder their capacity to protect their national security.Although such operations are a very old and common practice, it is paradoxically not regulated by a single and coherent legal regime under international law.Only the status of spies in times of war is, in fact, subject to specific international rules.