When you run a kingdom, empire, or state, you want eyes and ears on the ground that can gather the information you need to keep you from making terrible mistakes.
As societies have grown larger and more complex, so have those eyes and ears. Spy networks have grown into large intelligence gathering agencies, and those agencies increasingly work together.
One of these networks is known as Fourteen Eyes. If you communicate online or over the phone, then there’s a good chance it knows something about you.
What Is Fourteen Eyes?
Fourteen Eyes is an alliance of fourteen countries that have agreed to share data and data-gathering capability between their intelligence agencies.
Which Countries Are Part of the Fourteen Eyes?
The Fourteen Eyes program includes several countries that were all part of the former British empire plus nine European countries.
The Fourteen Eyes countries are:
- United States
- United Kingdom
- New Zealand
- The Netherlands
It’s worth noting that some countries have and may continue to collaborate with the alliance without being members themselves. This includes Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Israel. There isn’t a public list of how many countries collaborate altogether.
History of the Fourteen Eyes
The Fourteen Eyes alliance is the result of the gradual growth of intelligence sharing over the course of the 20th and 21st century. The origins go back to a smaller alliance formed during World War II.
The Five Eyes
The initial arrangement began as part of the 1943 Britain-United States of America agreement for the US War Department and the British government Code and Cypher School to co-operate. This cooperation was further sealed in the 1946 United Kingdom – United States of America Agreement (UKUSA).
In the years that followed, this network grew to include the former British dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Together, the alliance of intelligence gathering became known as the Five Eyes.
The Nine Eyes
The Nine Eyes Alliance contains all members of the Five Eyes, plus Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway.
The Fourteen Eyes
Fourteen Eyes Alliance includes the Nine Eyes member countries along with Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden.
Information about the Fourteen Eyes was contained in a document leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The working agreement between these fourteen countries was known as SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR).
Why Does the Fourteen Eyes Alliance Exist?
Why do fourteen countries come together and agree to share intelligence? The short answer is “national security,” or the urge to protect themselves.
From at least as far back as Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” people have considered information and espionage to be as important in a military skirmish as strength and force. Countries form intelligence agencies in order to protect their citizens and to give their military forces the upper hand.
So if intelligence is a country’s secret weapon, why share it? The most populous and powerful of the member countries is the United States. That country maintains an elaborate network of satellites that can detect missiles and nuclear explosions, take detailed photos of the planet, and monitor electronic signals. Sharing intelligence with the US grants some access to that capability.
The US also benefits. Consider that the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is one of the oldest and most effective surveillance bodies in the world. Other European countries also maintain their own network of spy satellites.
At the same time, no individual country has the ability to monitor all communication on its own. The joint US-Australia Pine Gap facility, for example, enables the US to better monitor what happens throughout much of Asia. By working together, countries can surveil individuals in otherwise inaccessible locations.
Plus some countries have limitations on how much government agencies can gather about domestic citizens. Sharing information allows other countries to do that spying for them.
What Information Do Fourteen Eyes Agencies Collect?
Let’s return to the official name of the Fourteen Eyes, “SIGINT Seniors Europe.” SIGINT stands for signals intelligence.
Signals intelligence refers to gathering information by intercepting signals. These signals may contain direct communications between people, such as phone calls and email. Or these signals may come from electronic devices for reasons not related to communication, revealing where equipment is located and whether it’s functional (most non-communications data gathering concerns a country’s defense network, such as the presence of radar or surface-to-air missiles).
The communications data-gathering has aroused the most concern from the broader public.
Examples of the data the Fourteen Eyes alliance bulk collects:
- Email (metadata and content)
- Instant messages (plus contact lists)
- Phone calls, text messages, and location
- Internet ad network-style cookies
- Web browsing history
- Documents saved online
Using this data, computer systems such as the US National Security Agency’s XKeyscore can search for activity connected to a real name, user name, email address, IP address, or other identifiers.
People using these systems get to view some of our most personal conversations, photos, and videos, often (if not typically) without the need for a warrant.
It’s important to note that such agencies don’t have to collect this information themselves. They often form contracts with the private companies that hold all this data, or they secretly break into those private systems, as the NSA and GCHQ did to servers owned by Google and Yahoo.
VPNs vs. Fourteen Eyes Nations
Will a Virtual Private Network (VPN) protect against Fourteen Eyes surveillance? That remains to be seen. A VPN encrypts traffic between you and the destination website, using your VPN provider’s servers. Unfortunately, there are two privacy issues impacting VPN usage.
- VPN companies are oftentimes headquartered in Fourteen Eyes nations. That means they are subject to the domestic laws of their host country.
- The servers used by VPN companies can be located in Fourteen Eyes nations. The owners of the servers are also subject to the laws of those jurisdictions. For example, ExpressVPN has had its servers seized before.
Even “no-logs” policies, where the VPN companies do not collect user data, may not fully protect against state-level surveillance. However, a VPN located outside the jurisdiction of a Fourteen Eyes nation (such as ZenMate VPN) is not subject to external data-collection laws. In theory, VPN companies like CactusVPN (Moldova) and NordVPN (Panama) aren’t subject to such privacy invasions.
However, there is some debate over whether ExpressVPN, which is located in the British Virgin Islands, falls under the legal authority of the Crown.
Recommended VPN: CactusVPN
What Does the Fourteen Eyes Network Know About You?
More than likely, it knows a lot. The Fourteen Eyes alliance is metaphorically scooping the ocean with a giant net, catching anything that swims. If no one has ever viewed your data, some of it is probably still in a database somewhere.
Even if you have better digital privacy habits now, you’ve probably already generated large volumes of data in the years before most of us became aware of how our data was being collected.
Yet it’s still worth forming good online habits, limiting how much information private companies gain about you going forward and their ability to actively monitor you. For most of us, the goal isn’t to prevent an intelligence agency from being able to find us (the local police department can probably manage that on its own), but to prevent strangers from viewing and abusing the intimate details of our lives. For those looking for better search hygiene, we recommend using a proxy search engine, like Startpage.
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