five eyes

All About Five Eyes, A Global Network Of International Spy Stations

Photo courtesy of Sorin Mutu via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s intelligence leaks span well beyond United States; in fact, they shed light on spy systems across the globe, part of a network called Five Eyes.

Leaked documents provide an unprecedented look at the global network of spy facilities (Five Eyes, or ECHELON), which comprise intelligence agencies of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

five eyes

Specifically, new documents examine the spy domes at Waihopai Valley-based facility in New Zealand, known as “Ironsand” in the Five Eyes network, which shares bulk-data lifted from communications across the Pacific Islands.


But Ironsand is only one of many identical spy facilities across the world, listening bases that together capture the planet’s digital and telephonic communications to share with Five Eyes, and the NSA in particular.

Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and the world’s spy bases

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”weLD5IjzDEMURyaVpvSD9mIeCutrTiLq”]Five Eyes began in the 1960s and was formalized in 1972 to monitor military and diplomatic communications between the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War.

The network expanded its reach significantly in the 20th and 21st century, and in 2014 Edward Snowden referred to it as “a supra-national intelligence organization that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries.”

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

five eyes

Above are the code names and locations of intercept bases, 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. Even so, 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 takeaway

Five Eyes and its various iterations are not new; in fact, there have been various new disclosures over the years. There is no indication that the leaks will impede, hurt, or halt the intelligence gathering, which has become seamless over the years.

We can expect Five Eyes to continue the system’s mission, which is, according to a leaked powerpoint presentation, to “sniff it all, collect it all, process it all, and know it all.”

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert