Is a "spy" different from an "informer"? If the answer is yes, what differences are there?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

A spy is an "outsider" whose role is to gather information in a covert fashion. An informer is an "insider" who exposes information to authorities.

  • 1
    Defining informer as someone who exposes information to authorities is a little too restrictive and imposes positive aspects to the action. An informer could just as easily be a member of the police force who has been coerced to report information to a criminal group. An informer could also work at a company and provide sensitive information to a friend or rival company for whatever reason. – Mordred May 7 '14 at 20:38
  • @Mordred: I agree with your comments. – Gary's Student May 7 '14 at 21:04
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    @Gary'sStudent You might want to edit your answer, then. Comments are deleted periodically. – user867 May 8 '14 at 1:10

Yes, they have different meanings. A spy is more likely to be a sanctioned agent. It's their job, or at the very least their function.

An informer is less likely to be employed in their position. Sometimes it will be a member of the criminal organization who feeds information to others (law enforcement in particular), but it could also be a neighbor or a girlfriend or some other kind of witness. Some cops pay their informers (also "informants") but this isn't necessary to the definition. "Informer" is more loosely defined as one who informs. "Informant" is more specific to informing authorities.

While an informer may spy on activities, that doesn't make them a spy per se.

"The informer spied the unloading of the illegal cargo. He informed the spy of these activities so action could be taken."

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    Good answer, but I think you should edit the first line of your second paragraph as it is a little unclear what you mean. I'm assuming you intended something like "In contrast to the spy, an informer's primary job is not typically to report information. The role of informer comes as a byproduct of their proximity to important/sensitive information which would be useful to other outside parties." – Mordred May 7 '14 at 20:35

A spy is (usually) collecting information for an organization or a person; he could also be doing it for himself. However, a spy can also work to cause harm to something without gathering any information (e.g., many WW II spies never gathered information but provided bad information to the enemy to trip them up).

An informer is someone who provides information because he has either worked for the organization (e.g., Edward Snowden) or someone on the outside who has knowledge gained by observation and/or by a reading of the facts (e.g., someone informing on a medical professional for Medicare fraud based on personal knowledge).

  • Interesting explanation. Thanks. – Mohammad Nazar May 7 '14 at 21:30

Although both connotes 'almost' same meanings. An 'spy' is someone who has the job of keeping tabs on people and situations. Its his or her usually a job description. However an 'informer' is a generic word for a person who informs against someone.

When we think of the word 'spy', we think of someone used in time of war to gain INFORMATION on the enemy while imparting this information to their own side for use in conducting military actions. When we think of the word 'informant', we think of someone in the civilian sector (usually a criminal) who has agreed to gain and give information to law enforcement officials to facilitate a desired outcome against a criminal action or entity. BOTH terms involve INFORMATION. BOTH terms involve transferring this information to parties outside of the entity from which the information was acquired. A SPY is an INFORMANT. An INFORMANT is a SPY. In the end, it's all a matter of semantics.

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    I rather think the question was asking about the semantics. – Andrew Leach May 26 at 14:27
  • Note that the question isn't about spy versus informant; it's about spy versus informer. Moreover, it was asked (and answered) more than four years ago—long before the teapot tempest of Donald Trump's equation of informant with spy stirred a flurry of interest in the question. I think it's significant that all four of the four-year-old answers, which were supplied long before the issue acquired its new political bias, agree that there is at least some difference between spy and informer. The three most highly upvoted answers, in particular, outline the differences quite well. – Sven Yargs May 30 at 4:45

I dealt with drug informants for about 15 years and taught classes on confidential reliable informants. They are basically the same. Spies usually provide information. Informants can provide info or buy drugs, stolen property etc. People equivocate spies with Jason Bourne, James Bond etc. Those who try to find a difference are simply trying to sugar coat the difference if there really is one.

  • Please add a source for your claims. – JJJ May 26 at 1:55

protected by Andrew Leach May 26 at 14:27

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