Cyber Security and Emerging Threats

Inside the Global Signals Intelligence Apparatus: An Overview of the Five Eyes Alliance

While the attention on Edward Snowden’s 2013 intelligence leaks centred on the NSA, the media has largely overlooked the underlying international spying apparatus of the U.S.-led intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes (FVEY). FVEY is a multinational network that links the NSA to governmental security organizations in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This alliance has been active since World War II and has grown tremendously since the beginning of the War on Terror. Today, the Five Eyes intelligence apparatus collects massive amounts of data on the communications of millions of people around the world.

The origins of the Five Eyes partnership can be traced back to World War II, when British and American codebreakers worked together to intercept and decode Nazi radio communications. After the war, the two sides continued cooperating and formalized their spying partnership with the secret “UKUSA” agreement of 1946. In 1955, the UKUSA agreement was amended to include the former commonwealth countries of New Zealand, Canada and Australia, resulting in the formation of the Five Eyes structure that still exists today.

During the Cold War, the FVEY countries realized that in an age of satellite based communication, the ideal means of gaining intelligence on the Soviet Union would be through the interception of messages sent through the satellite network. Thus, the Five Eyes began a global communications monitoring program known as ECHELON, using ground-based signal stations located around the world to collect Soviet satellite communications. As communications technology advanced in the following decades, the ECHELON program developed the ability to monitor emails, fax and telephone communications and internet traffic, according to a 2001 report by a committee of the European Parliament.

For most of its history, the Five Eyes alliance operated in secret, the public completely unaware of its existence. However, since the late 1980s up to Snowden’s 2013 revelations, public awareness of the surveillance cooperative has steadily increased. In 1988, journalist and British intelligence expert Duncan Campbell published the first public reference to ECHELON, reporting that the ECHELON system had been used to intercept the communications of U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Campbell revealed the existence of the UKUSA agreement and its system of on-the-ground monitoring stations, which passed on information from undisclosed intelligence sources. In 1999, Martin Brady, director of Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), acknowledged in a television interview the existence of ECHELON and the Five Eyes, revealing that his department had intercepted civilian communications over the Indian and Pacific Oceans under the parameters of the UKUSA agreement.

A 2000 surveillance scandal also thrust ECHELON into the public eye when it was revealed by former Canadian SIGNIT agent Mike Frost that Margaret Thatcher, former UK Prime Minister, used ECHELON to spy on two British ministers in 1983. In an interview, Frost told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that the FVEY alliance could be used to circumvent domestic laws on surveillance, and that Thatcher had the Canadians conduct the monitoring operations to give her complete deniability on the subject.

Most recently, revelations leaked by former NSA employee Edward Snowden have further revealed the scope of FVEY operations. Among the more shocking pieces of information regarding the current work of the Five Eyes network is the fact that FVEY had installed monitoring spyware in 50,000 computer networks worldwide, routinely spied on supposed allied countries like Germany and France, and had been monitoring global internet communications that run through fiberoptic cables.

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

Looking back at the development of the Five Eyes system, it is clear that the partnership has evolved from a simple alliance between intelligence organizations into a powerful global surveillance apparatus. What is startling and concerning about the rise of the Five Eyes is how little the public knows about the capabilities and scope of the network’s operations. The lack of media coverage specifically on the Five Eyes alliance has kept the spy network largely out of public view, and there has been little pressure to develop a system of oversight for such a huge surveillance apparatus. The fact that the Five Eyes has been tied to several espionage scandals, such as the alleged use of ECHELON for the interception of Senator Strom Thurmond’s communications and Margaret Thatcher’s purported use of ECHELON to spy on British ministers makes the lack of real public accountability even more surprising.

Recently, the passage of a bill known as the USA Freedom Act that limits NSA surveillance has been seen as a significant victory for individual privacy and a restriction on the U.S. government’s ability to collect massive amounts of data from civilian communications. However, the bill does little to address the unchecked power of the multinational Five Eyes apparatus. Restricting the capabilities of the NSA to intercept communications from American citizens only cuts off one of the five heads that make up the FVEY partnership. In a 2013 interview, Snowden disclosed that the Five Eyes states often circumvent their own domestic surveillance laws by simply obtaining communications intercepted within their country from the monitoring operations of their intelligence partners. Thus, despite the new bill, the NSA will potentially still be able to indirectly conduct surveillance on the American populace with relative impunity through the FVEY alliance.

As the world continues to grapple with the issue of electronic surveillance in the post-Snowden era, it is important that the Five Eyes intelligence apparatus be brought under increased public scrutiny. The network must be brought out of the shadows and into the realm of political discourse, where elected policymakers and the media can work to shape the system so that it maintains its efficacy while increasing its accountability to the public. At present, Five Eyes network appears supremely powerful, hidden from public supervision and seemingly invulnerable to the restrictions of domestic privacy laws. However, the Snowden revelations could mark a turning point: raising public awareness about the extent of government surveillance may lead to calls for new constraints on the Five Eyes apparatus.


  • Sandy Vingoe

    Sandy Vingoe is a Junior Research Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada. Sandy is a second year undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. As an International Studies major, his interests include East-Asian politics, military history and cyber security.

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Sandy Vingoe
Sandy Vingoe is a Junior Research Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada. Sandy is a second year undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. As an International Studies major, his interests include East-Asian politics, military history and cyber security.