104 voters

The Silliest Things We Believe About Spies Thanks To Movies

Updated March 17, 2021 536 votes 104 voters 34.4k views11 items

List RulesVote up the silliest spy myths that you wish were true anyway.

Spycraft is constantly changing thanks to new technologies, shifting political alliances, and perceived threats. Movies about spies during the Cold War, for example, may contain traditional spy tropes for good reason. A contemporary spy movie, on the other hand, might play on an outdated yet popular idea about spying simply to appeal to an audience. In fact, many traditional spy tropes have been so ingrained into popular culture that they may never disappear from Hollywood storytelling. 

Whether comedic, action-packed, or tales of thrilling intrigue, movies about spies are full of tropes that show up over and over again. Danger around every corner, complete secrecy, and the ability to kill at will - they're all associated with the quintessential spy life. But how accurate are spy movies?

Real spies have weighed in on some of the realities of their work, taking on ridiculous beliefs perpetuated by Hollywood. Proceed with caution - busting one of these myths might just upend everything you thought you knew about spies.

  • 1

    They Have A License To Kill

    Photo: License to Kill / United Artists

    The Movie Version: Spies are sent into dangerous situations without limitations on what they can do to accomplish a mission. They can dispatch anyone and everyone who gets in their way.

    The Reality: The myth of a "license to kill" is largely placed in the hands of author Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Typically, spies don't take out anyone, much less with reckless abandon. According to a former member of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), a "license to kill" is a "complete myth." He continued:

    The job of the service is to obtain intelligence to inform British government policy and help prevent, for example, terrorist attacks and in doing that we work under UK law... The work of the service is overseen both politically and legally so there's absolutely no room in that for killing people.

    In the United States, the same holds true. Spies are not typically violent and, in some instances, they're acutely aware that taking a life would only escalate tensions between potentially hostile countries. One-time CIA agent Emily Brandwin called killing "a big no-no at the Agency."

    There are some instances when death among spies occurs. In the UK, the Intelligence Services Act of 1994 gives some leeway to British intelligence officers as long as they act with proper authorization - a potential loophole to the preferred aversion to taking lives. The British Foreign Secretary has the ability to grant "Class Seven authorization," which allows for "lethal force" when necessary. Sir Richard Billing Dearlove, one-time head of MI6, indicated that, during his nearly 40 years with the agency, he'd never seen said authorization used.

    Notable Offenders: The James Bond franchise (notably License to Kill)True Lies, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

    Tantalizing myth?
  • 2

    A Single USB Drive, Disk, Or Envelope Contains Top-Secret Information 

    Photo: Eraser / Warner Bros. Pictures

    The Movie Version: With stealth and grace, a spy is handed an ominous envelope, full of pictures and names of sources, and/or details of a clandestine operation. A more tech-savvy exchange may involve a USB drive (or, depending on what time period we're in, a disk) full of classified data.

    The Reality: Securing the safety of sources and the information they provide remains fundamental to successful spycraft. As a result, using items one might find at a local office supply store proves insufficient. Former CIA agent Emily Brandwin explained that using a USB "would be frowned on... because it's about sources and methods of keeping your sources incredibly safe." She didn't elaborate as to specific methods for protecting sources or to the devices and gadgets CIA agents have at their disposal. The technologies available to spies may or may not meet the level of invention found in Hollywood, but layers of encryption are essential for all communication and information gathering.

    USB technology does have a place in surveillance and monitoring, but it's traditionally used more as a hacking device. USB drives are used to install covert programs on computers. Whistleblowers, not trained as spies, may also smuggle documents or information out to the public via disks or USB drives, as well. Edward Snowden used a simple USB device when he took documents from the National Security Administration in 2013, as did Daniel Hale in 2013 and 2014. 

    Notable Offenders: EraserThe Spy Who Dumped MeJason BourneMission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

    Tantalizing myth?
  • 3

    They Never See Their Family Or Their Friends

    Photo: True Lies / 20th Century Fox

    The Movie Version: Spies are lonely. When spies do make friends or have families, they never spend any time with them because they're always out on a mission. Sometimes they just can't make emotional connections with friends or family at all.

    The Reality: Being a spy isn't a 9-to-5 job, but it does allow for a semblance of "normal life." Spies are often based in office and laboratory settings, researching and analyzing data or conducting surveillance. According to agents within the CIA, "The Agency does its best to ensure its officers find a work/life balance," and, "Outside of work, the job looks like just another job - you'll still see your friends and certainly family."

    There are times when spies have obligations that keep them away from personal matters and responsibilities. This is especially true when a national or international crisis emerges. Challenges exist when it comes to keeping aspects of the job secret, however. Douglas Laux, who worked for the CIA for eight years, described his social life as "robust," but admits it was difficult because "every new person I met was one more person I had to keep my secret from and weave another lie with."

    Notable Offenders: The Bourne franchise, the Mission: Impossible franchise, the Bond franchise, True Lies, The Good Shepherd

    Tantalizing myth?
  • 4

    They’re Not Allowed To Tell Anyone Where They Work Or What They Do For A Living

    Photo: Mission: Impossible III / Paramount Pictures

    The Movie Version: Secrecy is everything when you're a spy. As a result, no one - literally NO ONE - can know where they work or what they do. This includes even the closest family members and results in a perpetual dual existence.

    The Reality: Keeping a lot of aspects of being a spy secret is necessary, but spies can tell people quite a bit about their jobs. Many CIA agents don't hide where they work from the people who are close to them, although they do keep the details of their activities secret. When sent on missions, CIA agents provide general information about where they're going, even bringing back mementos for loved ones.  

    Spies with families often struggle with what to tell their children about nights out or extended absences. While former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson didn't have to explain anything to her own children, she saw her colleagues struggle with what to do. She found that "most of the children sort of already know. And it comes as a relief to them because it’s like, 'Oh, dad is not having an affair. There's a reason he's out more nights than not.'"

    Undercover work and embedded missions may result in a practical amount of lying, perhaps resulting in a secret life. This was true at the height of the Cold War, with Russian spies in the US feeding information to the KGB. Jack Barsky, for example, was a KGB agent turned insurance professional who had two families - one in Pennsylvania and one in Russia. This wasn't necessarily the expectation in spy agencies. According to Barsky, his dual existence actually became burdensome, especially after his cover was blown and he refused to return to the Soviet Union.

    Notable Offenders: Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyMission: Impossible III

    Tantalizing myth?