How Five Eyes, the secretive security network, collects intelligence around the word.
Since the 1940s, a secretive anglo-saxon security partnership has expanded to become the worlds largest intelligence-sharing network. Known as Five Eyes, the group is comprised of intelligence agencies from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
The group uses a network of listening posts across the world to capture the planet’s digital and telephonic communications, then applies advanced software and new technology to synthesize information into various forms of intelligence insights, for sharing among the partners.
Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and the world’s spy bases
In its early stages the group focused on monitoring military and diplomatic communications between the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War.
Since then the network expanded its reach to include intelligence activities related to terrorism, while building adjacent relationships with other countries, including:
Five Eyes has also expanded to include other nations’ intelligence agencies:
- Nine Eyes: Five Eyes plus Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway
- Fourteen Eyes: Nine Eyes plus Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden
Powering the communications intercept capabilities if the group are a series of cable taps and listening posts across the world.
Above are the code names and locations of intercept bases used by the group, according to documents revealed by Edward Snowden.
The United States is home to three: Jackknife in Yakima, Washington, Timberlane in Sugar Grove, Virginia, and Coraline in Sabana Seca, Puerto Rico. The NSA and the CIA allegedly operate most bases.
What they gather, and how
Just what kind of information do Five Eyes gather, and how? As per a 1946 agreement between its nations, the Five Eyes don’t spy on one another — or not on their leaders, anyway. Spying on one another’s citizens is a grayer area, and it’s been speculated that they may indeed do so in order to share domestic data that circumvents laws preventing spying on one’s own citizens.
The general understanding, however, seems to be that citizens of member nations are not targeted directly, even if they are incidentally intercepted.
According to leaks, Five Eyes’ technological capabilities include:
- TEMPORA program: Places taps under fiber optic cable landing stations to intercept communications, including emails and phone calls, and store content for three to 30 days
- XKEYSCORE: an analytic framework that collects and filters search engine data, including IP addresses and usernames, that flows through collection points
The group’s mission, according to a leaked powerpoint presentation, is to “sniff it all, collect it all, process it all, and know it all.”
In 2017, Australia proposed sharing bioinformatic data of international visitors with the network.
Oftentimes successful intelligence activities remain shrouded in secrecy for many years, in order to shield top-secret capabilities and methods from adversaries, In the past the partnership has been credited with successes that include the tracking of Russian subs.
Recent examples of Five Eye successes sourced from the public domain are harder to come by, perhaps because of the secrecy that surrounds the group. Stopping a terrorist attack might be one of the groups most important objectives, but so far no evidence exists that they have done so.
Tensions Emerge Among Five Eyes Partners
In 2017 substantial tensions emerged between the group and the United States under President Trump, as Five Eyes partners became concerned about Trump’s reliability. Seen by some as a NATO skeptic and an isolationist, investigations into Trump’s Russian campaign connections did little to ease concerns.
Additional tensions between the Trump administration and British intelligence became apparent when the White House Press Secretary accused Britain of spying on the President during his campaign.
Oversight And Accountability
The organization, who’s existence was denied for many years, acts in many ways as a cooperative. Each member organization is governed by and accountable to its own government, and there is no formal agreement or contract between members.
In 2014, the ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden referred to the group as “a supra-national intelligence organization that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries.”
Today it is unclear how much members share new technology, and what information they share as opposed keeping it to themselves. However, it’s logical to assume that the group will leverage new technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced algorithms – along with new information and data resources- to extend their capabilities.
Cover Photo courtesy of Sorin Mutu via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.