Many people in the West have heard of intelligence agencies like Israel’s Mossad, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), or China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). But the true powers in global surveillance are three international intelligence alliances. They go by the strange names of Five Eyes (also called FVEY), Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes (formally known as the SIGINT Seniors of Europe, or SSEUR).
In this article, we’ll fill you in on what is publicly known about these three intelligence alliances and how they work together to spy on you, me, and everyone else on Earth.
The Five Eyes (FVEY)
Five Eyes is the oldest of these intelligence alliances, and apparently the most closely knit. We know a good bit about how this alliance came into existence. And thanks to Edward Snowden, we have some idea of the tools it uses for worldwide surveillance. But let’s start at the beginning.
The Origin of the Five Eyes
The Five Eyes alliance began with the cooperation between the intelligence services of the United States and Britain during World War 2. In 1943, they formalized their cooperation with the BRUSA Agreement.
This agreement covered things like the exchange of personnel between their respective intelligence services, as well as regulations for the distribution and use of sensitive information. The rules from this agreement reportedly became the basis for the SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) activities of the GCHQ in Britain and the NSA in the United States.
In 1946, the BRUSA Agreement was renamed the UK/USA Agreement to reflect the addition of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand to the SIGINT alliance. This alliance is commonly referred to as the Five Eyes or FVEY.
In case you are wondering where the name Fives Eyes came from, here’s how Bloomberg explains it:
In other words, Five Eyes is an easy way to describe the classification level of documents that can only be viewed by ‘eyes’ from these five countries.
What Makes the Five Eyes Special
As the UK Defense Journal puts it:
According to this CNN Explainer, one of the things that makes the Five Eyes special is the amount of information that gets shared between the countries. While countries often share intelligence with friends and allies, this sharing is often limited and conditional.
Perhaps due to a common language and more than 70 years of working together, the Five Eyes seem to share far more freely amongst themselves than other nations do. The fact that Britain stopped sharing information with the United States for a few days in 2017 was unusual enough to result in news stories around the world.
Today, in 2019, it is the United States that is threatening to withhold information from the other FVEY countries. The reason? According to Bloomberg, the USA wants the other countries to avoid using equipment from the Chinese company Huawei in their 5G networks. If they do not, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the US might not share some information with the rest of the Five Eyes.
What Does the Five Eyes Do?
As you might expect from the world’s most significant intelligence alliance, we don’t know exactly what the Five Eyes does. In the broadest terms, it spies on the entire world.
More specifically, Edward Snowden provided the world with some additional information when he leaked classified NSA documents. We now know that under the PRISM program, the NSA records vast amounts of Internet communications as authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in support of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
In addition, the ECHELON program, originally designed to spy on the Soviets and their allies during the Cold War, has now become a system for intercepting private and corporate communications worldwide.
NSA documents published by Snowden showed that ECHELON intercepts satellite communications. Even earlier, a committee of the European Parliament investigated ECHELON and reported that it was capable of intercepting and inspecting the content of phone calls, faxes, emails, and other communications. News stories have linked ECHELON to surveillance activities like:
Documents stolen by Snowden revealed additional programs that aid the Five Eyes in their global surveillance projects. These include:
- TEMPORA, a program that taps undersea fiber optic cables to intercept everything passing through the cables. The intercepted messages are analyzed by hundreds or NSA and GCHQ employees and filtered based on tens of thousands of keywords and likely other criteria.
- XKEYSCORE, a filtering system that can quickly analyze the data stored in several hundred servers located at over 100 sites around the world. Among other things, XKEYSCORE can index email addresses, file names, IP addresses, usernames, phone numbers, and metadata from browsing sessions.
Another alleged function of the Five Eyes Alliance is spying on each other’s citizens. While there are laws that limit the ability of the NSA, for example, to spy on American citizens, there are no such limitations on the GCHQ. Likewise, the NSA is not prevented from spying on British citizens. Since the agencies share information with each other, the theory is that they simply spy on each other’s citizens and share the information.
In short, the Five Eyes have the technical capability to record and analyze virtually all electronic communications around the world and has been doing so for decades. Whether they are doing so in compliance with international treaties or even their own laws is up for debate. According to the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch):
Whether you agree with Five Eyes practices or not, it is useful to know what kind of information its members can gather and who they share it with. It is also worthwhile to remember that the Five Eyes nations are also tied into two related alliances, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes.
Let’s look at them next.
Now that you know that Five Eyes is a group of five countries that shares intelligence, it should come as no surprise that Nine Eyes is a group of nine countries that does the same. Part of the information leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 was the existence of the Nine Eyes (a.k.a. 9-Eyes) alliance and its membership. Nine Eyes consists of the original Five Eyes countries (the United States, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) along with:
While we don’t know a whole lot about the inner workings of the Nine Eyes, it is reported to be the second-highest level of intelligence sharing conducted by the United States. It isn’t even clear to us whether there is a formal alliance or a treaty or any piece of paper that lays out precisely what the relationship is between the Nine Eyes countries. While the 9-Eyes countries share a lot, not everything that Five Eyes knows gets passed on to the rest of the group.
Apparently, even the governments of the countries involved in this group appeared to be surprised by the Snowden revelations. According to The Daily Dot, the French Interior Minister found it shocking to discover that the NSA was spying on French citizens. Eventually, it was revealed that “France has its own system to track citizens’ phone records, and French intelligence agencies pass intelligence on French citizens to the NSA.”
We will probably never know exactly what the various governments knew about these surveillance activities before Snowden.
I’m sure you know how this works by now. The 14 Eyes is the 9-Eyes plus the following countries:
They are apparently the next level of intelligence sharing, getting more than the rest of the world, but less than the 9-Eyes. The more formal name for the 14-Eyes group is the SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR).
In addition, there are groups such as SIGINT Seniors Pacific (SSPAC) and the Afghanistan SIGINT Coalition (AFSC), although, for whatever reason, these groups don’t get cool eyeball-related nicknames. The website Electrospaces.net has a good breakdown of which countries belong to which groups, at least as of 2014.
So how do all these different countries contribute to the spying and surveillance going on? Once again, we aren’t privy to the details, but according to the folks at Electrospaces.net, they contribute to many secret programs, including:
- RAMPART-A – A program for tapping into long-haul, international leased communications
- CROSSHAIR – A worldwide network of radio direction finding towers
The Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and 14 Eyes groups are an essential part of a global surveillance and espionage system that feeds into the GCHQ, NSA, and other intelligence agencies. Snowden’s leaks revealed some of what these organizations do, but it is unlikely we will ever know the full details.
The best we can say right now is that intelligence agencies with vast resources are doing their best to gather every shred of information they can about virtually everything you do online. If they decide to target you, you won’t evade them.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up on protecting your online privacy. The world is full of hackers, identity thieves, and other creeps that don’t have the resources of the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies. Sensible steps like using a VPN can still protect you from the threats you are most likely to face. Check out our reviews to find the best VPN for your particular situation.