A report produced by the House of Lords has highlighted the use of children as spies in covert operations against terrorist organisations, gangs and drug dealers. The controversial practice, adopted by British police and intelligence agencies came to the attention of peers when the Home Office proposed extending the timeframe a person under 18 can be used for Covert Human Intelligence Source (CHIS) from one to four months.
A spokeswoman for prime minister, Theresa May, insisted that under-18s are used as intelligence sources only when “very necessary and proportionate” and according to a “very strict legal framework”. To date, no information has been released which ascertains how many children have been employed and implicated in this practice.
The spokeswoman cited preventing gang violence as an example of when children are used, as well as in operations aimed at tackling “county lines” drug dealing, which often involves using children to carry drugs around the country. While the law states that the risk of psychological distress or physical injury to the child needs to be evaluated before they are used as a source, there is little evidence or information about how this assessment is made.
Children are deemed to be useful for covert operations because they often attract less suspicion. A child can be used to provide information and to collect details about illegal activities.
However, the information being provided and collected may have limited benefit. According to the child development psychologist Jean Piaget, a child only begins to process logical thought and develop long-term memory retention between the ages of 12 and 18. Although recent evidence suggests that children have the ability to recall events accurately from a young age, this ability does not always translate into practice. Inaccurate reporting is common. Celine van Golde, a researcher at the University of Sydney, highlighted how inaccurate information can be provided by the child depending upon the tone of an interview or the way in which a question is asked.
Younger children may provide inaccurate information to security forces based on what they think the adults want to hear. A child also doesn’t necessarily have the same verbal communication skills as an adult. Information and nuance may be lost in translation. They might provide information that is inconsistent or incomplete.
And if the people the child is spying on do suspect them, the child may not have the cognitive ability or specialised training to detect when they are being fed false information. Not only does this place the child in considerable danger but it can have repercussions for the criminal investigation or security operation.
Quality, accurate information that can be acted upon quickly by security forces is vital in covert operations. A child doesn’t have the cognitive abilities to recall or collect the kind of nuanced information that is likely to offer significant benefit to the investigation. So if the child is only providing low-level intelligence or information, is it really worth risking their safety to get it?
The use of children as spies is morally inexcusable, even if a risk assessment has been made. When we use children to spy on criminal or terrorist organisations, we only compound the harm already committed. If it isn’t possible to appeal to the government to consider its moral obligations and duty to protect children, we can at least point out the practical pitfalls of using them like this.