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All Eyes on You: Five Eyes Explained

Five Eyes focuses mainly on signals intelligence, which includes intercepting information transmitted online or over the phone … the Five Eyes countries share the strategic goal of balancing a rising China.

You may have heard of Five Eyes before, but don’t be worried if you haven’t – that’s sort of the whole idea. The Five Eyes agreement trades in secrets and (ideally) operates in the shadows of international affairs. However, recently Five Eyes has emerged in public discourse as the agreement becomes increasingly relevant in the interconnected,  changing world order, wherein whoever has the lion’s share of information has a serious advantage.

What is Five Eyes?

Five Eyes is an intelligence agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is the oldest intelligence partnership in the world and will be celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2021. The need for increased international security and cooperation following World War II was the catalyst for the UKUSA Agreement of 1946, later known as Five Eyes, and intelligence has been shared freely between these countries ever since.

Until recently, the agreement has been highly confidential, with reports alleging that the Australian Prime Minister wasn’t made aware of the agreement until 1973, after a Commonwealth investigation into intelligence agencies.

An essential part of why this agreement has endured multiple international conflicts, such as Vietnam and the Cold War, and a slew of scandals involving intelligence leaks, is the kindred histories and cultures the five member states share. The US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have retained a shared Western culture that binds them in the international sphere. This shared history of cooperation and similarities in culture and strategic ambitions have fostered international trust, which is essential for working intelligence partnership. These relationships are not perfect─all friends fight sometimes─but they have endured. 

Membership of Five Eyes is exclusive and currently only includes English speaking countries. However, the intelligence sharing network has two further tiers. In addition to the original Five, Nine Eyes features Denmark, France, Norway, and the Netherlands. Fourteen Eyes adds Germany, Belgium, Sweden, and Spain. Five Eyes has also worked in less official capacities with Israel, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea.

Five Eyes focuses mainly on signals intelligence, which includes intercepting information transmitted online or over the phone. Each party promises not to spy on other Five Eyes members, and in return receives open access to all signals intelligence gathered in these countries, as well as access to technological developments that aid intelligence gathering and analysis. 

Whilst spying on Fives Eyes states is prohibited as part of the agreement, the member states can gather intelligence on nationals who go overseas or communicate using websites and digital communications that operate offshore. An example of Five Eyes intelligence sharing is the fact that the Australian Signals Directorate, the government division most involved in Five Eyes, was able to request access to private internet data through the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program. PRISM taps into private online activity through ubiquitous companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook. As part of the agreement, all Five Eyes members have access to PRISM’s information.

The countries also freely share immigration data, monitor signals activity from world leaders, and are increasingly using the label “Five Eyes” in multilateral ministerial meetings on defence and foreign policy. Given the first instance of an Australian prime minister referring publicly to Five Eyes was only in 2014, this is a significant progression.  

Recent stumbling blocks within Five Eyes have included Huawei’s bid to construct 5G networks in Five Eyes countries and concerns that the Trump administration shared top secret intelligence with Russian officials. Both of these issues raise the concern of breached security and trust, with both China and Russia perceived as challengers to an international order that the Five Eyes nations had a role in constructing and have since defended.

The Snowden Scandal

Does the name Five Eyes sound familiar? Before 2013, knowledge about Five Eyes was on a need-to-know basis. This changed dramatically when Edward Snowden, a former NSA analyst, leaked confidential intelligence and surveillance data to the public via WikiLeaks.

The breached information implicated the Five Eyes members when it was revealed that the phone calls of thirty-five foreign leaders were being monitored, including German chancellor Angela Merkel. It also revealed that Australia was monitoring a list of “Leadership Targets” in the Indo-Pacific region, which deeply strained its relations with Indonesia – the fourth largest country in the world and one of Australia’s closest neighbours. This monitoring occurs in diplomatic outposts, often without the diplomats’ knowledge.

When Snowden propelled Five Eyes into the public domain, it would have been reasonable to assume the agreement would be seriously weakened, if not crumble entirely. After all, their cover had been blown. The fact that the agreement had already been in place for decades and that the five member states share great amounts of cultural capital are key reasons why instead of disbanding, the group has embraced being public knowledge. The Five Eyes Intelligence and Oversight Review Council (FIORC) meets annually, publishing an admittedly bare-bones news release on their publicly accessible website.. 

Five Eyes + 1?

Five Eyes has been in the news more recently for a less scandalous reason. Taro Kono, who was Defence Minister under Shinzo Abe and is now Minister for Reform under Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has been calling for Japan’s integration into Five Eyes for months. As recently as September 2020, Kono replied to a tweet from British Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat, implying the new UK-Japan trade deal was a step in the direction of “Six Eyes.”

Whilst Kono admits that “Japan is not an Anglo-Saxon country” and its membership would be a first for the intelligence sharing framework, he is adamant that Japan shares values and interests with the Five Eyes states.

Japan already shares intelligence with the US, the UK, and Australia and is highly adept at signals intelligence gathering. Tokyo is also acutely aware of its geopolitical proximity to an increasingly assertive China and made clear in its 2020 defence white paper that Japan is prepared to be proactive in protecting its national security and regional interests. Kono believes these interests align with those of Five Eyes.

However, intelligence sharing depends on trust as much as it does information. Whilst Japan is an economically-robust and technologically-advanced country with a recent history of cooperation with several Five Eyes members, it has a notoriously weak system of protecting classified information. Without tiers of classification status, theoretically any Japanese government worker could access protected information. Concerns over Japan’s counterintelligence capacity turns its advantageous proximity to China into a weakness, making a potential “Five Eyes + 1” arrangement more likely in the near future than a fully integrated “Six Eyes.”

Poke the Dragon, Lose an Eye

Some industry criticism has emerged that Five Eyes, now that it is more publicly known, is forgetting its intelligence roots and moving towards a policy cooperation framework. Ministerial meetings between the five member states are being labeled as Five Eyes meetings, even when the subject matter does not pertain to intelligence sharing. This phenomenon is manifesting chiefly because the Five Eyes countries share the strategic goal of balancing a rising China. Pre-existing high levels of cooperation streamline the coordination of international policymaking. 

Five Eyes has made very clear that it is now more than just an intelligence sharing agreement. Following the introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong in 2020, designed to criminalise the anti-Beijing, pro-democracy movement as treason and sedition, and the arrests of several pro-democracy legislators, the Five Eyes states released a joint statement condemning Beijing’s actions in November of last year. To Beijing, the Hong Kong protests are an internal affair, and any international commentary is inappropriate and unnecessary. For Five Eyes, the loss of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong is a hit to the status quo from which they benefit. 

Five Eyes is more relevant than ever as a key element in the US’ efforts to balance against China in an increasingly dynamic global competition for dominance. Now that it is public knowledge, Five Eyes may evolve from its beginnings as an intelligence agreement into a more holistic foreign policy and defence multilateral framework with an intelligence emphasis. They will need to keep all five eyes peeled – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian made it clear, “No matter if they have five eyes or [ten] eyes, if they dare to harm China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, they should beware of their eyes being poked and blinded.”





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By Sarah Knight

Sarah Knight is a fourth year undergraduate student of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her interests include international security, geopolitics and strategy, and ethnic conflict.

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