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Five Eyes Alliance

Contributor(s): Wesley Chai

The Five Eyes Alliance (abbreviated as FVEY in government documents) is a cooperative intelligence network that monitors the electronic communications of citizens and foreign governments. This network of anglophone countries includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Five Eyes Alliance became the subject of controversy in 2013 -- when U.S. NSA employee Edward Snowden released classified documents about its activities to the public.

FVEY is the result of the UKUSA (United Kingdom – United States of America) Agreement of 1946 and is the world's oldest intelligence partnership. In the past, it was used to monitor foreign communications among a number of countries, serving various political interests. Today, FVEY monitors private communications of billions of people, worldwide.   

The Five Eyes Alliance uses communications methods, such as signals intelligence (SIGINT), to monitor the citizens of other FVEY member countries. By monitoring each other's citizens, FVEY can bypass domestic surveillance regulations. FVEY has steadily advanced since its initial inception and has developed to the point of a multinational global surveillance program, capable of monitoring the data of entire populations.

FVEY collects information by intercepting private communications -- such as telephone calls, faxes, emails and text messages -- from infrastructure such as satellites, telephone networks and fiber optic cables. FVEY also receives records of user data from large technology companies -- including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, AOL, Skype and Apple. Each member country has three to five government agencies involved; each agency is responsible for one to two roles, including human intelligence, defense intelligence, security intelligence, geo intelligence and signal intelligence.

Origin and history

FVEY originated as a result of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, which laid out Allied goals for the world after World War II. In 1943, the U.S. and the U.K. formed a cooperative intelligence agreement -- a secret treaty known as the BRUSA Agreement -- which was later formalized as the UKUSA Agreement. In the next decade, Canada, Norway, Denmark, West Germany, Australia and New Zealand were temporarily added as less-involved third parties. In 1955, an update narrowed the group down to its current, tighter-knit selection of Five Eyes countries -- the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and NZ.

In the 1950's, FVEY shared Cold War intelligence and monitored communications from the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China and Eastern Bloc countries. Intelligence from FVEY was also used for:

  • the Vietnam War;
  • the Falklands War;
  • the Gulf War;
  • the overthrowing of Iran's Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh;
  • the assassination of Patrice Lumumba;
  • the overthrowing of Chilean President Salvador Allende;
  • aiding Chinese dissidents during the Tiananmen Square protests; and
  • the war on terror.

Controversies and leaks in the news

Information about the Five Eyes Alliance was among the classified documents leaked to the public in 2013, by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

This stirred global controversy, as questions were raised about the line between surveillance and the invasion of online privacy. Though some previous knowledge about FVEY existed, the public was unaware of the full extent of data collection and the new revelations left much of the public feeling violated about their privacy rights. The involved government agencies have maintained the necessity of their surveillance for national security purposes.

In 2016, the Investigatory Powers Act was drafted in the U.K., which expanded the U.K. Intelligence Community's legal limitations of electronic surveillance. The draft was received with backlash in the U.K. for privacy concerns -- with mass petitions to repeal the act -- and was amended in 2018 after the U.K. high court ruled the draft an act in violation of EU law.

Five Eyes and human privacy rights

Since the Snowden leak, the Five Eyes Alliance has faced large amounts of public distrust, with many people believing it to be a violation of basic human rights. Prior to the leak, it was thought that the Five Eyes Alliance intelligence activities were limited to foreign countries. However, the classified NSA documents leaked by Snowden showed that the Five Eyes were collecting and storing large amounts of electronic communications records from their own ordinary citizens. The documents revealed that the partner countries were monitoring the citizens of each other-- as a loophole, to bypass domestic spying laws for mass surveillance. This Five Eyes surveillance program was known as Echelon.

Organizations, individuals targeted by Five Eyes

Organizations that have been targeted by the Five Eyes Alliance are diverse. The list includes major technology companies, United Nations organizations, airlines, telecom operators, news and media companies, financial institutions, multinational corporations, oil companies and educational institutions. Some of these organizations include:

  • United Nations (General Assembly, Institute for Disarmament Research, Children's Fund, Development Programme, International Atomic Energy Agency)
  • Google
  • Yahoo
  • Mastercard
  • Visa Inc.
  • Aeroflot (Russian Airlines)
  • Al Jazeera (media group)
  • Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication
  • Thales Group (corporation)
  • Petrobras (oil company)
  • Total S.A. (oil company)
  • Alcatel-Lucent (French telecom operator)
  • Belgacom (Belgian telecom operator)
  • Pacnet (Hong Kong-based telecom operator)
  • Tsinghua University
  • The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The list of well-known individuals who have been targeted by FVEY include politicians, government leaders, entrepreneurs and even entertainers. Some of these individuals include:

  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Strom Thurmond
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Jane Fonda
  • Ali Khamenei
  • John Lennon
  • Ehud Olmert
  • Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
  • Angela Merkel
  • Princess Diana, princess of Wales
  • Kim Dotcom

Other related international intelligence alliances

The countries involved in the Five Eyes Alliance have built decades-long partnerships that involve deeper levels of intelligence sharing and an agreement to not spy on each other. In addition, third-party countries -- those not involved in FVEY -- with less privileges have separate agreements worked out with the Five Eyes countries for specific common interests, such as monitoring the activities of one or two countries. Unlike second-party countries -- members of FVEY -- third-party countries are still subject to intelligence targeting and do not share the full extent of intelligence privileges as the inner circle.

Other intelligence alliances include:

  • Five Eyes Plus Three Against China and Russia
    • Includes the Five Eyes Alliance countries along with France, Germany and Japan. The alliance was formed in early 2018 as a response to common threats from Russian and Chinese activities.
  • Five Eyes Plus Three Against North Korea
    • Includes the Five Eyes Alliance countries along with France, Japan and South Korea. The alliance is used to share intelligence about North Korean military activities, such as ballistic missile-related threats.
  • Nine Eyes
    • Five Eyes Alliance countries, along with Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway.
  • Fourteen Eyes
    • The informal name for Nine Eyes countries, along with Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden. Formally known as SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR).
This was last updated in April 2020

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