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The Five Eyes intelligence alliance is a secretive coalition and surveillance arrangement of countries internationally which include the United States National Security Agency (NSA), Canada’s Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

A series of bilateral agreements were developed in the beginning of 1946 by an alliance of five English-speaking countries over a period of time and became to known as the UKUSA agreement. This agreement established the Five Eyes alliance to share intelligence especially signals intelligence (SIGINT).

These five English-speaking countries for almost 70 years have been involved in the global surveillance spying on the communications all over the world and build an infrastructure to master the internet for surveillance.

What does the Five Eyes agreement states?

The agreements amongst the Five countries are not known despite being 70 years old. A very little information about the agreements between the Five Eyes countries is present in the books of history and usually references become the part of intelligence agency reporting. Also, limited information about what exactly the arrangement comprises the services themselves.

There has been a minimum appreciation for the extent of the arrangement within the governments of the five countries, which the intelligence agencies are meant to serve. The arrangement is so secretive that the Prime Minister of Australia was not informed of its reality until 1973 and it was not acknowledged officially by the government by its name until 1999. Yet, only a few documents have been released that discuss the surveillance by the Five Eyes.

The agreement states that interception, collection, analysis, acquisition, and decryption practiced by the individual country within their territory and all intelligence information are shared by default. The scope of the agreement is wide and jointly-run operation centers are established under the agreement where operatives from a number of intelligence agencies of the states from the Five Eyes work alongside each other.

To ensure that the Five Eyes alliance is more than just a set of collaboration principles, tasks are divided between SIGNIT agencies. The national product becomes so impossible to differentiate when the level of cooperation is complete.

Level of collaboration between the Five Eyes?

Specific technical programs of collection and analysis were developed and collaborated by the Five Eyes. A senior member of Britain’s intelligence community said “When you get a GCHQ pass it gives you access to the NSA too. You can walk into the NSA and find GCHQ staff holding senior management positions, and vice versa. When the NSA has a piece of intelligence, it will very often ask GCHQ for a second opinion. There have been ups and downs over the years, of course. But in general, the NSA and GCHQ are extremely close allies. They rely on each other.”

Recent documents revealed by Edward Snowden show the close alliance between the five countries. The classification “TOP SECRET//COMINT//REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL” or “TOP SECRET//COMINT//REL TO USA, FVEY” included in almost all documents. The classification markings specify that the stuff is top-secret communications intelligence (aka SIGNIT) material which can be given out to Australia, Canada, US, United Kingdom and New Zealand. The main objective of REL TO is to recognize the information that has been classified which a party has already determined to be released through established foreign disclosure channels and methods, to an international organization or a foreign country.

Under the UKUSA agreement, the level of co-operation is so complete that the national product usually becomes hard to differentiate.

The Former British spy said: “Cooperation between the two countries, particularly, in SIGINT, is so close that it becomes very difficult to know who is doing what […] it’s just organizational mess.”

There is no embargo despite rumors of a “no-spy pact” on gathering the intelligence from the citizens of Five Eyes countries. There is a common understanding that the residents will not be targeted directly and where communications can be intercepted incidentally there will be an effort to lessen the employment and analysis of these communications by the intercepting state.

Some more surveillance alliances

Besides the Five Eyes alliance, there are a few of other surveillance partnerships also:

  • 9 Eyes: an addition in the Five Eyes which includes Denmark, France, Norway, and Netherlands.
  • 14 Eyes: an addition to the 9 Eyes which include Spain, Sweden, Italy, Belgium, and Germany.
  • 41 Eyes: includes all of the above with the allied coalition in Afghanistan.
  • Tier B countries with which the Five Eyes have “focused cooperation” on the network exploitation of the computer. The countries include Austria, Denmark, Czech Republic, Belgium, Hungry, Germany, Greece, Italy, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Luxembourg, Netherland, Poland, Spain, South Korea, Portugal, Turkey, Switzerland, and Sweden.
  • Club of Berne: 17 members excluding the US and including primarily European states.
  • The Counter Terrorist Group: it is a broad membership that includes the 17 European States of Club of Berne and also includes the US.
  • NATO Special Committee: it comprises of the head of the security services of member countries of NATO.

To fight against terrorism the ongoing war on terror since 2001 has led the Five Eyes to expand their surveillance activities with a greater focus on monitoring World Wide Web. Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor has described the Five Eyes as supra-national intelligence organization that does not respond to their own countries laws.

The documents that were revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013 showed that these Five states have been involved in spying the one another’s citizens and share the gathered details with each other in order to evade restrictive domestic regulations on the citizen’s surveillance.

Some professionals of intelligence community despite the disclosures of Snowden believe that nothing can affect the coalition of the Five Eyes and which is regarded as one of the most comprehensive known intelligence alliances in history.