- Table of Contents
- What Is the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance?
- What Are the Five Eyes Countries?
- What Did Edward Snowden’s PRISM Leak Reveal About Five Eyes?
- Five Eyes vs Nine Eyes vs 14 Eyes
- What Do the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes Mean For You?
- How to Protect Your Privacy Against the Five Eyes
The Five Eyes alliance is an agreement between the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand to share intelligence. Member states can use the agreement (and the larger Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes groups) as cover to spy on their own citizens. A VPN can help you protect yourself –you can try my favorite, ExpressVPN, for free with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Five Eyes sounds like an organization run by supervillains, and that’s partly James Bond’s fault. Those who have seen the 007 film Spectre might remember the villain’s plot revolved around hijacking an intelligence agreement known as Nine Eyes. That agreement — along with its counterparts Five Eyes and 14 Eyes — is 100% real.
The reason we know these terms in the first place, though, is not due to Bond but to a real-life intelligence agent: Edward Snowden. As part of his leak of documents on the PRISM surveillance program, Snowden alleged that Five Eyes and its siblings were “a supra-national intelligence organization that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries.”
- Best to protect from surveillance
However, the nature of Five Eyes as a secret intelligence treaty makes it hard to know much for sure. In spite of a growing backlash against its methods, Five Eyes member agencies like the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s intelligence organization GCHQ can defend any transgression in the name of national security.
In this article, I aim to declassify and demystify the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes programs to the best of my ability. As we go, I’ll separate the myths pushed by spy movies and overzealous VPNs from the real threats these treaties pose to your civil rights.
Why is it called Five Eyes?During WWII, the member nations would pass around envelopes stamped “For AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US Eyes Only.” This phrase was shortened to “Five Eyes.”
What are 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes and 14 Eyes?Five Eyes is a mostly secret treaty between the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand to share intelligence, which often extends to spying on each other’s citizens. Nine and 14 Eyes are larger networks of countries that cooperate with Five Eyes.
What is the work of Five Eyes?Five Eyes began as an agreement to share military intelligence. These days, it provides legal authority and cover to large-scale operations like Echelon and PRISM, which share mass surveillance data gathered without search warrants.
What Is the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance?
Five Eyes is the longest-standing and most formalized of the Eyes alliances, originating from the early years of World War II. It began as an informal agreement between intelligence services in the United Kingdom and the United States (which had yet to formally declare war) to share information they dug up about enemy codes.
Soon, the other three English-speaking “Anglosphere” countries most involved in the war — Canada, Australia and New Zealand — joined the handshake agreement. Intelligence agencies circulated missives with the label “For AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US Eyes Only,” which was soon shortened to Five Eyes.
Post-WW2 Five Eyes
Nurtured by the Cold War and later the War on Terror, Five Eyes evolved into a complex and long-standing apparatus. But it still has the same mission it did in the beginning: gathering and sharing national intelligence. Specifically, the Five Eyes member agencies are involved in signals intelligence, the act of gathering military secrets from intercepted communications.
What communications? They don’t know. They’ll have to listen to all of them just to be sure. Don’t worry; it’s a national security matter.
Since the Allies won the Second World War, the Five Eyes has been mired in controversy. Nearly every shady operation the CIA pulled in the 20th century — including overthrowing governments in Iran, Chile and Congo — was done in collaboration with a counterpart under the auspices of Five Eyes.
It’s hard to pin down anything specific Five Eyes has done. It’s not an organization unto itself, any more than something called “The Beatles” exists independently of John, Paul, George and Ringo. This next section covers everything we can say about Five Eyes with relative certainty.
What Are the Five Eyes Countries?
The Five Eyes Alliance is made up of intelligence agencies in the five major Anglophone countries that fought in World War II.
Intelligence agencies: ASIS, ASD, ASIO, AGO, DIO
Intelligence agencies: CFINTCOM, CSE, CSIS, RCMP
- New Zealand
Intelligence agencies: DDIS, GCSB, NZSIS
- United Kingdom
Intelligence agencies: DI, GCHQ, MI5, MI6, SIS
- United States
Intelligence agencies: CIA, DIA, FBI, NGA, NSA
It’s more accurate to say the agencies make up Five Eyes, rather than the nations themselves. Until the ’90s, the civilian governments of member states frequently didn’t know about it.
It would also be a mistake to assume the five nations above are the only ones engaged in intelligence sharing. For example, the Snowden leaks revealed that German intelligence agencies send data to the NSA. I’ll get into that more in later segments, but for now, remember that there are far more eyes than just these five.
What is “Echelon”?
I recommend having a roll of tinfoil close at hand before you read this section. Before it’s over, you’ll want a new hat.
The Five Eyes treaties give intelligence agencies the authority to help each other gather intelligence data, but the actual gathering is done by other means. One of the biggest means is Project ECHELON, a global surveillance network that was framed as a conspiracy theory but literally exists.
The Five Eyes nations were forced to reveal the existence of ECHELON in 1999, thanks to the tireless work of journalist Duncan Campbell. They’re still cagey about the details, but investigations revealed a little about how ECHELON works.
The system has two parts. First, a worldwide network of spy stations intercepts practically all worldwide communications between telephones, computers and fax machines. These stations upload a staggering amount of data to ECHELON’s supercomputers.
Most of it sits there without being processed, but the computers are constantly running searches for any exchanges they deem suspicious. And I mean any exchanges. One Canadian source described the computer flagging a woman as a potential terrorist because she said her son “bombed” in his school play performance. Got that tinfoil hat on yet?
Today, it’s hard to say whether ECHELON remains in operation. That said, if the Five Eyes scrapped the program, it wasn’t because they had an attack of conscience. They almost certainly just replaced it with an upgraded model like PRISM, the program that made Edward Snowden a household name.
What Did Edward Snowden’s PRISM Leak Reveal About Five Eyes?
Edward Snowden is the most famous American whistleblower since Mark “Deep Throat” Felt. Snowden is known for leaking tens of thousands of classified documents following an attack of conscience that ended his career at the NSA. He’s also known for finding asylum in Russia, marrying a professional acrobat and having taken only one selfie in his life.
Snowden’s specific revelations are often lost in the debate over whether he’s a hero or a traitor. To boil it down, he demonstrated that world governments gather a gobsmacking amount of data on their citizens, disregarding outdated concepts like “search warrants” and “due process” and “the Fourth Amendment.”
Many of his leaked documents focused on PRISM, a signals-intelligence-sharing program for the internet age. Unlike ECHELON, which maintained its own systems, PRISM offloads much of its surveillance work onto the private industries that provide communication services.
The Snowden papers suggested Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google and Yahoo cooperated with the surveillance, along with cellular and internet service providers Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and AOL.
What does this have to do with the existing Five Eyes partnership? Privacy advocates argue the Five Eyes intelligence alliance is no longer about intelligence sharing between friendly nations — it’s about those nations conspiring to provide each other with legal loopholes that allow mass surveillance programs to run unchecked.
How does that work? Imagine you’re a CIA agent who wants to spy on an American citizen. Don’t worry about why.
That pesky Bill of Rights makes it so you can’t gather information on your target without a warrant; you could be in legal trouble if that ever came to light. But if you call your buddy in New Zealand and have them do the spying, your butt is covered. Thanks to intelligence sharing via the Five Eyes alliance, information flows both ways, but nobody is technically spying on their own people.
Again, this isn’t a conspiracy theory. The Snowden dump repeatedly confirms it. Although the group may once have been about international cooperation, the Five Eyes alliance has long since decayed into a cover story for civil rights violations.
Five Eyes vs Nine Eyes vs 14 Eyes
Throughout its history, many countries have cooperated with Five Eyes without being official members. France, Germany and Japan have all participated in Five Eyes alliance intelligence sharing at one time or another, seeking to borrow their power to counter Russia and China. France came closest to joining in 2009, but the deal fell through.
In 2013, however, the Snowden papers revealed that the Five Eyes alliance wasn’t quite as much of an Anglosphere boys’ club as it had been.
What Are the Nine Eyes Countries?
According to leaked documents and investigative journalism, the treaty has a second level of countries and security services that share intelligence of mutual interest, without being as cozy as the Five Eyes countries. That’s called the Nine Eyes.
The members are the Five Eyes members, plus:
- The Netherlands
These nations were brought into the web by their focused cooperation with an ascendent U.S. after the war. We don’t know exactly how much of a difference there is between having Five Eyes or Nine; at the end of the day, they could be almost exactly the same.
What Are the 14 Eyes Countries?
Fourteen Eyes is a European intelligence sharing agreement that’s even less defined than Nine Eyes. We only know about both Nine and 14 Eyes from the Snowden document dump, making it difficult to know anything for sure about this third-tier treaty.
The Fourteen Eyes countries are the Nine Eyes members, plus:
Most of the 14 Eyes interactions likely resemble Germany’s provision of data to the NSA: information flowing from subsidiary security entities to Five Eyes intelligence services. It’s less clear if it also flows the other direction.
What Do the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes and 14 Eyes Mean For You?
Since the Snowden leaks, some national legal systems have attempted to bring the Five Eyes alliance into line. There’s even an international review body — the Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Committees — but its oversight methodology is as toothless as a barroom brawler with scurvy.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be Mr. Robot to fight back. Under PRISM and its related programs, the U.S. government doesn’t do much spying. It passes the buck to the corporations that manage communication networks. You don’t have to protect yourself from the entire Five Eyes intelligence sharing system, just from those corporations.
It also doesn’t protect civilian leaders: the NSA spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel while Germany was a member.
How to Protect Your Privacy Against the Five Eyes
To foil internet service providers that may be involved in intelligence sharing, use a virtual private network (VPN). VPNs encrypt your communications and hide your IP address so your ISP can’t tell who you are or what you’re doing.
One thing you don’t have to worry about is the Five Eyes alliance compromising your VPN service. VPNs love to advertise that they’re based in non-Five Eyes countries, but that doesn’t actually matter.
Five Eyes just provides cover for the surveillance; it doesn’t give the watchers additional power. If your VPN doesn’t log user data, you’ve got nothing to worry about, even if it’s based in a Five Eyes country.
The top VPNs include ExpressVPN, NordVPN and Surfshark, all of which have a good track record of not keeping logs. You can use Tor Browser to add layers of distributed encryption for more security. Never use Tor without a VPN, though.
For cell phone calls and text messages, use an encrypted app. Snowden recommends Signal, and it’s my top choice, but you also can’t go wrong with Wickr. If you choose Telegram, make sure to enable encryption, as it’s not on by default.
WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are technically encrypted end-to-end, but they’re both owned by Meta (formerly Facebook), which has a very shady privacy record. Don’t trust them.
In case it wasn’t clear, I’m firmly on the “Snowden is a hero” side of the debate. He revealed a crime being perpetrated against every citizen of the United States and at least four other countries, doing more to encourage transparency than almost any other whistleblower. If he profited from it, he made far less than he would have by staying in his job at the NSA.
If there’s one message I take from his story and the Five Eyes saga in general, it’s that no one in the government is going to step up to protect your privacy. Luckily, you can protect yourself.
With VPNs, secure browsers and encrypted messaging apps, we have more options than hoping we don’t get caught in the dragnet. If you’ve got a favorite method of keeping your information safe, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!