The Five Eyes (FVEY) is an anglophone intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. These countries are parties to the multilateral UKUSA Agreement, a treaty for joint cooperation in signals intelligence.
The origins of the FVEY can be traced back to the post–World War II period, when the Atlantic Charter was issued by the Allies to lay out their goals for a post-war world. During the course of the Cold War, the ECHELON surveillance system was initially developed by the FVEY to monitor the communications of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, although it is now used to monitor billions of private communications worldwide.
In the late 1990s, the existence of ECHELON was disclosed to the public, triggering a major debate in the European Parliament and, to a lesser extent, the United States Congress. As part of efforts in the ongoing War on Terror since 2001, the FVEY further expanded their surveillance capabilities, with much emphasis placed on monitoring the World Wide Web. The former NSA contractor Edward Snowden described the Five Eyes as a “supra-national intelligence organisation that does not answer to the known laws of its own countries”. Documents leaked by Snowden in 2013 revealed that the FVEY has been spying on one another’s citizens and sharing the collected information with each other in order to circumvent restrictive domestic regulations on surveillance of citizens.
In spite of continued controversy over its methods, the Five Eyes relationship remains one of the most comprehensive known espionage alliances in history.
Since processed intelligence is gathered from multiple sources, the intelligence shared is not restricted to signals intelligence (SIGINT) and often involves defence intelligence as well as human intelligence (HUMINT) and geospatial intelligence (GEOINT). The following table provides an overview of most of the FVEY agencies involved in such forms of data sharing.
|Australia||Australian Secret Intelligence Service||ASIS||Human intelligence|
|Australian Signals Directorate||ASD||Signal intelligence|
|Australian Security Intelligence Organisation||ASIO||Security intelligence|
|Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation||AGO||Geo intelligence|
|Defence Intelligence Organisation||DIO||Defence intelligence|
|Canada||Canadian Forces Intelligence Command||CFINTCOM||Defence intelligence, Geo Intelligence|
|Communications Security Establishment||CSE||Signal intelligence|
|Canadian Security Intelligence Service||CSIS||Human intelligence, Security intelligence|
|New Zealand||Directorate of Defence Intelligence and Security||DDIS||Defence intelligence|
|Government Communications Security Bureau||GCSB||Signal intelligence|
|New Zealand Security Intelligence Service||NZSIS||Human intelligence|
|United Kingdom||Defence Intelligence||DI||Defence intelligence|
|Government Communications Headquarters||GCHQ||Signal intelligence|
|Security Service||MI5||Security intelligence|
|Secret Intelligence Service||MI6, SIS||Human intelligence|
|United States||Central Intelligence Agency||CIA||Human intelligence|
|Defense Intelligence Agency||DIA||Defense intelligence|
|Federal Bureau of Investigation||FBI||Security intelligence|
|National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency||NGA||Geo intelligence|
|National Security Agency||NSA||Signal intelligence|
The origins of the Five Eyes alliance can be traced back to the Atlantic Charter, which was issued in August 1941 to lay out the Allied goals for the post-war world. On 17 May 1943, the British–U.S. Communication Intelligence Agreement, also known as the BRUSA Agreement, was signed by the UK and U.S. governments to facilitate co-operation between the U.S. War Department and the British Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS). On 5 March 1946, the secret treaty was formalized as the UKUSA Agreement, which forms the basis for all signal intelligence cooperation between the NSA and GCHQ to this day.
In 1948, the treaty was extended to include Canada, followed by Norway (1952), Denmark (1954), West Germany (1955), Australia (1956), and New Zealand (1956). These countries participated in the alliance as “third parties”. By 1955, the formal status of the remaining Five Eyes countries was officially acknowledged in a newer version of the UKUSA Agreement that contained the following statement:
At this time only Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be regarded as UKUSA-collaborating Commonwealth countries.
The “Five Eyes” term has its origins as a shorthand for a “AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US EYES ONLY” (AUSCANNZUKUS) releasability caveat.
Cold War (1950s–1990s)
During the Cold War, GCHQ and the NSA shared intelligence on the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and several eastern European countries (known as Exotics). Over the course of several decades, the ECHELON surveillance network was developed to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies.
During the Vietnam War, Australian and New Zealand operators in the Asia-Pacific region worked directly to support the United States, while GCHQ operators stationed in the (then) British colony of Hong Kong were tasked with monitoring North Vietnamese air defence networks. During the Falklands War, the British received intelligence data from its FVEY allies such as Australia, as well as from third parties such as Norway and France. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, a technician of the ASIS was used by SIS to bug Kuwaiti government offices.
In the 1950s, SIS and the CIA jointly orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. In the 1960s, SIS and the CIA jointly orchestrated the assassination of the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. In the 1970s, the ASIS and the CIA jointly orchestrated the overthrow of Chile’s President Salvador Allende. During the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, SIS and the CIA took part in Operation Yellowbird to rescue dissidents from the Chinese regime.
ECHELON network disclosures (1972–2000)
By the end of the 20th century, the ECHELON surveillance network had evolved into a global system capable of sweeping up massive amounts of private and commercial communications, including telephone calls, fax, e-mail and other data traffic. This was done through the interception of communication bearers such as satellite transmission and public switched telephone networks.
The Five Eyes has two types of information collection methods: the PRISM program and the Upstream collection system. The PRISM program gathers user information from technology firms such as Google, Apple and Microsoft, while the Upstream system gathers information directly from the communications of civilians via fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past. The program’s first disclosure to the public came in 1972 when a former NSA communications analyst reported to Ramparts Magazine that the NSA had developed technology that “could crack all Soviet codes”. In 1988, Duncan Campbell revealed in the New Statesman the existence of ECHELON, an extension of the UKUSA Agreement on global signals intelligence [Sigint]. The story, ‘Somebody’s listening,’ detailed how the eavesdropping operations were not only being employed in the interests of ‘national security,’ but were regularly abused for corporate espionage in the service of US business interests. The piece passed largely unnoticed outside of journalism circles. In 1996, a detailed description of ECHELON was provided by New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager in a book titled “Secret Power – New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network“, which was cited by the European Parliament in a 1998 report titled “An Appraisal of the Technology of Political Control” (PE 168.184). On 16 March 2000, the Parliament called for a resolution on the Five Eyes and their ECHELON surveillance network, which, if passed, would have called for the “complete dismantling of ECHELON”.
Three months later, the Temporary Committee on ECHELON was set up by the European Parliament to investigate the ECHELON surveillance network. However, according to a number of European politicians such as Esko Seppänen of Finland, these investigations were hindered by the European Commission.
In the United States, congressional legislators warned that the ECHELON system could be used to monitor U.S. citizens. On 14 May 2001, the U.S. government cancelled all meetings with the Temporary Committee on ECHELON.
According to a BBC report in May 2001, “the US Government still refuses to admit that Echelon even exists.”
War on Terror (2001–present)
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the surveillance capabilities of the Five Eyes were greatly increased as part of the global War on Terror.
During the run-up to the Iraq War, the communications of UN weapons inspector Hans Blix were monitored by the Five Eyes. The office of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was bugged by British agents. An NSA memo detailed plans of the Five Eyes to boost eavesdropping on UN delegations of six countries as part of a “dirty tricks” campaign to apply pressure on these six countries to vote in favour of using force against Iraq.
SIS and the CIA forged a surveillance partnership with Libya’s ruler Muammar Gaddafi to spy on Libyan dissidents in the West, in exchange for permission to use Libya as a base for extraordinary renditions.
As of 2010, the Five Eyes also have access to SIPRNet, the U.S. government’s classified version of the Internet.
In 2013, documents leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of numerous surveillance programs jointly operated by the Five Eyes. The following list includes several notable examples reported in the media:
- PRISM – Operated by the NSA together with GCHQ and the ASD
- XKeyscore – Operated by the NSA with contributions from the ASD and the GCSB
- Tempora – Operated by GCHQ with contributions from the NSA
- MUSCULAR – Operated by GCHQ and the NSA
- STATEROOM – Operated by the ASD, CIA, CSE, GCHQ, and NSA
In March 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Australia to stop spying on East Timor. This marks the first time that such restrictions are imposed on a member of the FVEY.
Domestic espionage sharing controversy
In recent years, documents of the FVEY have shown that they are intentionally spying on one another’s citizens and sharing the collected information with each other in order to circumvent restrictive domestic regulations on spying. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the advocacy group Liberty, claimed that the FVEY alliance increases the ability of member states to “subcontract their dirty work” to each other. The former NSA contractor Edward Snowden described the FVEY as a “supra-national intelligence organisation that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries”.
As a result of Snowden’s disclosures, the FVEY alliance has become the subject of a growing amount of controversy in parts of the world:
- Canada: In late 2013, Canadian federal judge Richard Mosley strongly rebuked the CSIS for outsourcing its surveillance of Canadians to overseas partner agencies. A 51-page court ruling asserts that the CSIS and other Canadian federal agencies have been illegally enlisting FVEY allies in global surveillance dragnets, while keeping domestic federal courts in the dark.
- New Zealand: In 2014, the NZSIS and the GCSB of New Zealand were asked by the New Zealand Parliament to clarify if they had received any monetary contributions from members of the FVEY alliance. Both agencies withheld relevant information and refused to disclose any possible monetary contributions from the FVEY. David Cunliffe, leader of the Labour Party, asserted that the public is entitled to be informed.
- European Union: In early 2014, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs released a draft report which confirmed that the intelligence agencies of New Zealand and Canada have cooperated with the NSA under the Five Eyes programme and may have been actively sharing the personal data of EU citizens.
Other international cooperatives
Since the addition of two members in 1956, the specific Five Eyes consist of Australia (accepted 1956), Canada (accepted 1948), New Zealand (accepted 1956), the United Kingdom (co-creator 1946), and the United States (co-creator 1946). Further, there is a group of nations termed ‘3rd Party Partners’, which share their intelligence with the 5 Eyes.
While the Five Eyes is a very specific agreement with specific operations amongst the five nations, other non-FVEY sharing agreements have been set up independently and for specific purposes. For example, according to Edward Snowden, the NSA has a “massive body” called the Foreign Affairs Directorate that is responsible for partnering with foreign countries.
According to the news magazine L’Obs, in 2009, the United States proposed to France to join the Five Eyes, that would then have become the “Six Eyes”. Nicolas Sarkozy however made the requirement to be granted the same status as other allies, including the signing of a “no-spy agreement”. This requirement was approved by the director of the NSA, but not by the director of the CIA, and furthermore not by President Barack Obama, resulting in a refusal from France.
In 2013 it was reported that Germany was interested in joining the Five Eyes alliance. At that time, several members of the United States Congress, including Tim Ryan and Charles Dent, were pushing for Germany’s entrance to the Five Eyes alliance.
Israel, Singapore and Japan are collaborating with Five Eyes.
Five Eyes Plus Three Against China and Russia
Five Eyes and, reportedly, a group of other “like-minded partners”, such as France, Germany and Japan, since early 2018 introduced an information-sharing framework to counter threats arising from foreign activities of China as well as Russia.
Five Eyes Plus Three Against North Korea
Five Eyes and France, Japan and South Korea tied up intelligence information sharing about North Korea’s military activities including ballistic missile.
The Nine Eyes is a different arrangement that consists of the same members of Five Eyes working with Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway.
According to a document leaked by Edward Snowden, there is another working agreement amongst 14 nations officially known as SIGINT Seniors Europe, or “SSEUR”. These “14 Eyes” consist of the same members of Nine Eyes plus Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden.
Further intelligence sharing collaborations
As spelled out by Privacy International, there are a number of issue-specific intelligence agreements that include some or all the above nations and numerous others, such as:
- An area specific sharing amongst the 41 nations that formed the allied coalition in Afghanistan;
- A shared effort of the Five Eyes nations in “focused cooperation” on computer network exploitation with Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey;
- Club of Berne: 17 members including primarily European States; the US is not a member;
- The Counterterrorist Group: a wider membership than the 17 European states that make up the Club of Berne, and includes the US;
- NATO Special Committee: made up of the heads of the security services of NATO’s 28 member countries