If you’ve ever watched a crime show on TV, you’re probably familiar with the idea of undercover government agents. These are people who pretend to be someone else in order to gather information and evidence on criminal activities and catch people in wrongdoing, and they have been a staple of law enforcement for generations.

Where the federal government is concerned, undercover agents have tended to come from the FBI – at least until recently. Over the past several years, undercover operations have been increased so dramatically that there are now more than 40 different agencies that use undercover operatives. So how many undercover agents are out there? Estimates place the number “well into the thousands.”

There are so many people undercover that a longtime DEA agent has gone on record as saying that “people are always tripping and falling over each other’s cases. In fact, anecdotal evidence points to the fact that it’s not uncommon for one agent to end up accidentally investigating another that they thought might be a criminal.”

What Are All of These Undercover Agents Doing?

With so many people undercover, it begs a simple question: what are they doing? As it turns out, a little bit of everything.

The Supreme Court uses undercover agents to infiltrate large demonstrations and watch for suspicious activity. Undercover officers for the IRS try to bring tax evaders to justice. People go undercover into convenience stores to watch for illegal sales of cigarettes and alcohol. There are even undercover agents looking for financial fraud in education programs and pretending to be patients to catch healthcare providers breaking the law.

Why has there been such a huge surge over the past decade? The seemingly obvious answer would be to prevent terrorist attacks, but as you can tell from the many varied ways that undercover agents are employed, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. In today’s world, they are also working to crack down on more traditional crimes and slow the spread of identity theft and online solicitation, among other emerging problems.

Necessary Law Enforcement Tactic or “Danger to Democracy”

From the point of view of law and order, it makes sense why many of these government agencies would want to utilize undercover operatives. After all, people are much more likely to show their true colors and engage in bad behavior if they’re not worried about someone busting them.

But there are also some scary things inherent in using such a large-scale undercover force. Not only are most of these programs not disclosed to the public, making it hard to tell how effective they are for the hundreds of millions of dollars the government is spending on them, in many cases there seems to be a lack of internal oversight as well.

How so? Well, take the example of the committee created to oversee undercover investigations into cigarette smuggling. They met once over seven years and discovered that over $127 million worth of cigarettes purchased by the government could not be accounted for.

Beyond this, there are big questions that all of this undercover work raises about entrapment and encroachment on civil liberties when government organizations can send people in to spy on us without having any real reason to suspect criminal activity beyond “wanting to prevent it.”

If you have run afoul of an undercover operative or worry that you may be targeted, contact a criminal attorney in Frisco who has experience dealing with these kinds of cases. To prevent our rights and freedoms from eroding further, it’s up to us to protect them.