This article is about people who provide privileged information about a person or organization to an agency. For other uses, see Informant (disambiguation).

A representative from the U.S. State Department congratulates and offers a partial payment to a fully disguised informant, whose information led to the neutralization of a terrorist in the Philippines.

An informant (also called an informer[1]) is a person who provides privileged information about a person or organization to an agency. The term is usually used within the law enforcement world, where they are officially known as confidential or criminal informants (CI), and can often refer pejoratively to the supply of information without the consent of the other parties with the intent of malicious, personal or financial gain.[2] However, the term is used in politics, industry and academia.[3][4]

Criminal informants

Informants are commonly found in the world of organized crime. By its very nature, organized crime involves many people who are aware of each other's guilt, in a variety of illegal activities. Quite frequently, confidential informants (or criminal informants) will provide information in order to obtain lenient treatment for themselves and provide information, over an extended period of time, in return for money or for police to overlook their own criminal activities. Quite often, someone will become an informant following their arrest.

Informants are also extremely common in every-day police work, including homicide and narcotics investigations. Any citizen who aids an investigation by offering helpful information to the police is by definition an informant.

The CIA has been criticized for leniency towards drug lords[5] and murderers[6] acting as paid informants, informants being allowed to engage in some crimes so that the potential informant can blend into the criminal environment without suspicion,[6] and wasting billions of dollars on dishonest sources of information.[2]

Informants are often regarded as traitors by their former criminal associates. Whatever the nature of a group, it is likely to feel strong hostility toward any known informers, regard them as threats and inflict punishments ranging from social ostracism through physical abuse and/or death. Informers are therefore generally protected, either by being segregated while in prison or, if they are not incarcerated, relocated under a new identity.

Informant Motivation

Informants, and especially criminal informants, can be motivated by many reasons. Many informants are not themselves aware of all of their reasons for providing information, but nonetheless do so. Many informants provide information while under stress, duress, emotion and other life factors that can impact the accuracy or veracity of information provided.

Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and others should be aware of possible motivations so that they can properly approach, assess and verify informants' information.

Generally, informants' motivations can be broken down into self-interest, self-preservation and conscience.

A list of possible motivations includes:




Labor and social movements

Corporations and the detective agencies that sometimes represent them have historically hired labor spies to monitor or control labor organizations and their activities.[8] Such individuals may be professionals or recruits from the workforce. They may be willing accomplices, or may be tricked into informing on their co-workers' unionization efforts.[9]

Paid informants have often been used by authorities within politically and socially oriented movements to weaken, destabilize and ultimately break them.[10]


Informers alert authorities regarding government officials that are corrupt. Officials may be taking bribes, or participants in a money loop also called a kickback. Informers in some countries receive a percentage of all monies recovered by their government.

Lactantius described an example from ancient Rome involved the prosecution of a woman suspected to have advised a woman not to marry Maximinus II: "Neither indeed was there any accuser, until a certain Jew, one charged with other offences, was induced, through hope of pardon, to give false evidence against the innocent. The equitable and vigilant magistrate conducted him out of the city under a guard, lest the populace should have stoned him... The Jew was ordered to the torture till he should speak as he had been instructed... The innocent were condemned to die.... Nor was the promise of pardon made good to the feigned adulterer, for he was fixed to a gibbet, and then he disclosed the whole secret contrivance; and with his last breath he protested to all the beholders that the women died innocent."[11]

Criminal informant schemes have often been used as cover for politically motivated intelligence offensives.[12]

Jailhouse informants

Jailhouse informants, who report hearsay (admissions against penal interest) which they claim to have heard while the accused is in pretrial detention, usually in exchange for sentence reductions or other inducements, have been the focus of particular controversy.[13] Some examples of their use are in connection with Stanley Williams, Cameron Todd Willingham, Gerald Stano, Thomas Silverstein, Marshall "Eddie" Conway, and a suspect in the disappearance of Etan Patz.

Terminology and slang

Slang terms for informants include:

The phrase "drop a dime" refers to an informant using a payphone to call the authorities to report information.

The term "stool pigeon" originates from the long-ago practice of tying a passenger pigeon to a stool. The bird would flap its wings in a futile attempt to escape. The sound of the wings flapping would attract other pigeons to the stool where they could be easily killed or captured.[35]

List of famous individuals

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Informants.


  1. "informer". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 6 June 2016. 2: one that informs against another; specifically : one who makes a practice especially for a financial reward of informing against others for violations of penal laws
  2. 1 2 "The Weakest Link: The Dire Consequences of a Weak Link in the Informant Handling and Covert Operations Chain-of-Command" by M Levine. Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 2009
  3. "Pursuing strategic advantage through political means: A multivariate approach" by DA Schuler, K Rehbein, RD Cramer Academy of Management Journal, 2002
  4. "Reading English for specialized purposes: Discourse analysis and the use of student informants" by A Cohen, H Glasman, PR Rosenbaum-Cohen, J. Tesol Quarterly, 197
  5. "Kid Who Sold Crack to the President" by J Morley. Washington City Paper, 1989
  6. 1 2 "Government Corruption and the Right of Access to Courts" by UA Kim. Michigan Law Review, 2004
  7. Allen, Bill Van (2011). Criminal investigation : in search of the truth (2nd ed.). Toronto: Pearson Canada. p. 217. ISBN 978-0-13-800011-0.
  8. "Private detective agencies and labour discipline in the United States, 1855–1946" by RP Weiss. The Historical Journal, 2009. Cambridge Univ Press
  9. "Judicial Control of Informants, Spies, Stool Pigeons, and Agent Provocateurs" by RC Donnelly Yale Law Journal, 1951
  10. "Thoughts on a neglected category of social movement participant: The agent provocateur and the informant" by GT Marx American Journal of Sociology, 1974
  11. Lactantius. "On the Deaths of the Persecutors".
  12. "CIA Assets and the Rise of the Guadalajara Connection" J. Marshall Crime, Law and Social Change, 1991
  14. 1 2 3 "snitch".
  15. 1 2 "Role of the Rat in the Prison" by HA Wilmer. Fed. Probation, 1965
  16. Orwant, Jon (May 22, 2003). Games, Diversions & Perl Culture: Best of the Perl Journal. O'Reilly Media.
  17. "The Origin of fink 'informer, hired strikebreaker'" by William Sayers. A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews. Winter 2005 Cornell University
  18. Criminal classes: offenders at school by A Devlin. 1995
  19. "The Intelligence War in Northern Ireland" by K Maguire International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Volume 4, Issue 2 1990 , pages 145165
  20. "grass". Oxford English Dictionary. A spy or informer, esp. for the police
  21. "Supergrasses: a study in anti-terrorist law enforcement in Northern Ireland".
  22. Chicano intravenous drug users: The collection and interpretation of data from hidden from Hidden Populations by R Ramos. 1990
  23. Prison patter: a dictionary of prison words and slang by A Devlin. 1996
  24. "Some ethical dilemmas in the handling of police informers" by C Dunnighan, C Norris Public Money & Management, 1998
  25. "nose". Oxford English Dictionary. A spy or informer, esp. for the police
  26. "Speaker and Structure in Donne's Satyre" by NM Bradbury. Studies in English Literature, 15001900, 1985.
  27. "Sociology of Confinement: Assimilation and the Prison 'Rat'" by EH Johnson. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science. 1961
  28. 1 2 "Reflections on the role of statutory immunity in the criminal justice system" by WJ Bauer Journal of Criminal Law. & Criminology, 1976
  29. "snout". Oxford English Dictionary. A police informer
  30. "Instigated Crime" by S Shaw Alta. LQ, 1938
  31. 1 2 "Elevating the Role of the Informer: The Value of Secret Information". MW Krasilovsky. ABAJ, 1954
  32. "On Truth and Lie in a Colonial Sense: Kipling's Tales of Tale-telling" by A Hai ELH, 1997
  33. "Telling tales in school" by A Minister. Education 313, 1990
  34. Prison ministry: hope behind the wall by Dennis W. Pierce 2006
  35. Coleman 1996, p. 24.
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