It is a common theme in many a spy thriller: a lonely man is approached by an attractive woman who is clearly out of his league. Sometimes the woman is a “working girl,” while other times she is presented as innocent and a bit naïve. The man falls for her, often leading to a relationship of a sexual nature.

The twist – which the reader or viewer can see coming from a mile away – is that the femme fatale is actually using the mark to gather information or influence over the target. This is known as either a “honeytrap” or “honeypot,” although the latter term is now used to describe a computer security mechanism set to detect and counteract attempts to gain unauthorized use of information systems.

IC Warns About the Honeytrap

While the honeytrap remains a common theme in popular culture, it has been employed as a very real tactic in the Intelligence Community (IC). In fact, the UK’s MI5 saw honeytraps as such a concern that it even prepared a 14-page document and distributed it to hundreds of British banks, businesses, and financial institutions in early 2010. Titled “The Threat from Chinese Espionage,” the document from the famed British security service described a wide-ranging Chinese effort to blackmail Western businesspeople over sexual relationships.

“The use of ‘honeytraps,’ or individuals who use their wiles to spy, is an age-old practice,” said Amanda Ohlke, the International Spy Museum’s director of adult education.

“Like many aspects of intelligence collection, as technology evolves, this seductive strategy has also expanded into the 21st century. There is now abundant opportunity to target individuals on dating apps as well as to better hone your dating profile to inspire someone’s interests,” Ohlke told ClearanceJobs.

Social media platforms can be employed to learn a target’s likes, dislikes, and what makes them tick, which can allow someone to mold to what the target may be interested in.

“This leap into the 21st century also means that a target might have access to protected networks that hold valued information they themselves aren’t focused on, but their new seductive digital  friend could use them to steal secrets while they are busy flirting,” warned Ohlke. “There isn’t official data on honeytrapping, and it is only one aspect of the many ways intelligence agencies might elicit information, but it certainly isn’t going anywhere!”

The Origins of the HoneyTrap

The use of sex to sway an adversary and gain access to classified secrets likely goes back millennia, and while fiction may typically present it as a man who is the target; the truth is that it is employed against men and women alike. It also doesn’t always involve sex.

While certainly not the first honeytrap, one of the earliest to gain significant notoriety was the Flying Squadron, which was believed to have been set up by Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, and mother of kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. She was rumored to have overseen a group of women who were dispatched as agents of influence and intelligence operatives.

Catherine de Medici employed these women to gain access to powerful men across Europe in hopes of securing the throne for her sons.

One of the most infamous honeytraps involved Mata Hari, a Dutch-born woman who the French military arrested on charges of spying for the Germans during the First World War. It was discovered that the German military attaché in Spain was sending her money. At her trial, it was alleged that the German attaché was her control officer and that she was passing him French secrets she obtained by seducing prominent French politicians and officers. However, she claimed that she was only the attaché’s mistress.

It was later revealed that the French military had no actual evidence she passed any information to the attaché, and modern historians have suggested she was tried and then executed by firing squad simply to send a warning to any women who might be tempted to spill military secrets for money.

Salon Kitty’s Catnip

One of the less known variants of a honeytrap was the “high-class” Berlin brothel that was secretly run by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Nazi intelligence service. In this case it wasn’t to acquire secrets from Nazi Germany’s adversaries, but rather to determine whether top German dignitaries and foreign visitors, including diplomats, were spilling the goods during their “visits.”

It had been operated by Katharina Zammit, who went by the name Kitty Schmidt, before the Second World War and its clientele included senior Nazi Party members. After Zammit tried to flee the country only to be caught by the infamous SS, she was forced to cooperate and monitor the activities of her clientele. It was installed with covert listening devices, which were monitored by up to five operators working in secret room in the basement. Among the prominent regulars was reportedly Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

At one point, a British agent, who operated under a cover identity as a Romanian press agent, discovered the microphones and was able to wiretap into the cables – allowing the British intelligence to hear some of the same conversations (and other activities that went on) as the SD.

It was short-lived however, as the brothel was destroyed in a July 1942 air raid. Zammit survived the war, but never disclosed any of the secrets that were discovered.

Cold War Mozhno Girls and Romeos

During the Cold War, the Communist Bloc clearly sought to utilize the “decadence” of the West – and that included the KGB’s so-called Mozhno girls, which were women trained to spy on foreign officials by seducing them. They earned their name from the Russian word “mozhno,” which translates to “it is permitted,” as those agents were allowed to breach regulations that normally restricted contact with foreigners.

The Soviet’s also set up the State School 4, a clandestine academy that trained young attractive women in the art of “sexpionage.” Its graduates served in brothels, bars, and five-star hotels in the Soviet Union to target foreigners. These women were also known as “Red Sparrows.”

East Germany went in another direction, and employed a program where handsome and well-educated East German men targeted Western women. The program was led by East German Stasi spymaster Markus Wolf, whom the CIA called “the man without a face.” Wolf’s male spies gained so much notoriety that they were heralded as “Romeo spies” – and only the top 1% of those who applied were given false identities of either immigrants or dead citizens and sent to the West.

Over the course of three decades that the Romeo program was active, close to 40 German women – “Juliets” – were prosecuted for espionage. Many failed to accept they were victims of a honeytrap, believing the men they had relations with truly loved them.

“As Wolf once observed, ‘since time immemorial, security services have used the mating game to gain proximity to interesting figures,'” said Ohlke.  “He acknowledged that ‘the ends did not always justify the means we chose to employ, [but] as long as there is espionage, there will be Romeos seducing unsuspecting Juliets with access to secrets.’ Whether the target is male or female or non-binary, this sexual access strategy has continued.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.