The headline stopped me in my tracks as I scrolled through Twitter: “U.K. Is Using Children as Undercover Spies.”
“It can’t be,” I thought. “Surely British intelligence isn’t actually taking advice from the Alex Rider books?”
A staple of my youth, the novels written by Anthony Horowitz center on a 14-year-old British superspy who’s recruited by MI6 after his secret agent uncle dies. Alex Rider uses his youth as a cover to foil terrorist plots against the United Kingdom.
The books have been a huge success, selling over 16 million copies since 2000. So far, Horowitz has written 11 books (with a 12th on the way), along with five graphic novels, three short stories and one terrible movie.
It’s not hard to see why the books have become so popular. Alex lives every young boy’s dream, jetting around the globe to fight crime under the watchful eye of his guardian Jack Starbright and his MI6 bosses Alan Blunt and Mrs. Jones. He’s even got Smithers, his own personal Q, to provide him with gadgets.
Over the course of the series, Alex completes dozens of daring missions and outsmarts many mustache-twirling villains, mostly associated with the terrorist group Scorpia.
He does everything from stopping a deadly computer virus that could kill every child in Britain to foiling the plot of a Bono-like pop star hellbent on hijacking the U.S. nuclear arsenal to infiltrating a “snakehead” ring of child smugglers in Indonesia.
And in most cases, he’s smarter than the government officials he’s dealing with, whether they’re members of Parliament or an American Secretary of State with not-so-subtle similarities to Hillary Clinton.
There’s no question the Alex Rider books are fun to read. But they also shouldn’t be an inspiration for government policy.
Even so, British intelligence is now using children under the age of 18 as a “covert human intelligence source” to report on terrorists, gangs and drug dealers.
For now the kids are only utilized for one month at a time, but the Home Office now wants to extend that period to four months. (By comparison, Alex has worked for MI6 for about two years in the book’s timeline.)
The real life program is a bit more responsible than Horowitz’s creation. Children under 16 must have an adult present at any meetings with their handler. By contrast, in many cases, Alex has to go it alone.
And while Alex gets involved with MI6 through family connections, the real informant program is more remedial in nature. Kids who are arrested as part of a gang roundup or other illicit endeavor become informants in order to reduce their sentence.
Crucially, the child informants of 2018 don’t commit crimes as part of their work—they’re simply observers. By contrast, Alex fights and even kills many of his adversaries
But while London’s kid crime fighters may not have as much free rein as their fictional counterpart, doing such high risk work presents obvious issues for children.
As such, child welfare groups are urging Britain to curb the program. Rights Watch UK said the government should “prevent children from being exposed to criminal activity, not embed them further in it.”
And even the House of Lords is questioning the feasibility of child spies, noting they would face “increased risks to their mental and physical welfare.”
Alex also grapples with these issues, lying to his friends about his work and sustaining serious injuries in the field.
So while the adventures of this young crime fighter may make for a great page-turner, they definitely shouldn’t influence actual government policy. If adult agents can’t handle these issues on their own, not even Alex Rider can help them.