IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

The eyes that are always watching and the price of the club: Australia in the Five Eyes alliance

Written by Ana Stuparu.

Not a lot is officially known about the Five Eyes (FVEY) treaty in itself, and whilst it is historically referred to repeatedly as the UKUSA Agreement (with roots in the 1946 agreement by the two nations), when, how, and under what circumstances and requirements the other three members joined is still a mystery to the public. What is certain, however, is that the Five Eyes, formally revealed in 2013, are a set of nations with “strong cultural, linguistic and economic affinities,” that have developed a tight-knit cyber intelligence sharing program.

Ironically enough, the weakest link in the chain seems to be the United States, with leaks from their intelligence agencies putting everyone else at risk.

The FVEY collaboration between the United Kingdom (UK), United States of America (USA), Canada, Australia and New Zealand spans decades. It is a collaborative consortium not replicable by Russia, China, Iran or indeed any other single nation; perfecting the alliance’s mechanisms has taken tremendous funds and much practice. Instead, potential opponents are only left with the option of hacking into this tremendous database, or indeed waiting for WikiLeaks and the likes to do it for them. The difference with said potential opponents is that the Australian government (and indeed the other four partners) has laws and values that make it accountable to its people, whereas some other nations contain relatively uninformed or misinformed populations that do not have debates over social liberties.

The world’s eyes turned to the Five Eyes in 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed the extent and tightness of the alliance. Australia’s involvement led to some degree of domestic backlash, particularly with evidence of Australia accessing US National Security Agency (NSA) data more than the UK in a 12 month period. However, the Five Eyes endured and cooperation persisted. This was in spite of the delicate diplomatic situation Australia found itself in with Indonesia, as the NSA data leaked details of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD)’s neighbourly phone tapping practices. (As an interesting side note on this point, consequences included the Indonesian faction of Anonymous retaliating against Australia, including targeting random, non-governmental websites.)

The alliance survived that scandal and relationship strain with the US, and will likely survive this latest round of WikiLeaks information release too. Ultimately, the FVEY union is “deep” and unshakeable, too precious to all parties to be jeopardised by leaks. As of March 2017, the public now knows that they can be spied on by FVEY, anywhere in the world, à la Orwell’s 1984. Yet this does not come as a big surprise for most, only a confirmation that there truly is very little privacy left thanks to the cyber realm and all it enables. The privacy vs security debate will only keep raging on.

What is worth thinking about, however, is the fact that Australia allegedly has the same technological capacity and reach as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). That also means the same vulnerabilities – from real world devices to cyber infiltration strategies. The exposure of many of these is an obvious blow to Australian cyber security and, by extension, national security at large. Ironically enough, the weakest link in the chain seems to be the United States, with leaks from their intelligence agencies putting everyone else at risk, as previously pointed out by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in what was also a comparison between the NSA and the Stasi. The latest WikiLeaks scoop has just demonstrated, yet again, “that the US government can’t keep secrets.”

Returning to the strength of the Five Eyes’ alliance, whether it will survive the “test of Trump” seems to be a more pressing question. US President Donald Trump dealt several substantial blows to important existing multilateral partnerships within his first two months in office. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) was an economic “setback” for Australia; this was followed by the two nations’ leaders clashing over the “dumb” refugee issue, and culminated in an embarrassing story for Australia of how its PM was hung up on, none of which has helped the overall relationship. Moreover, President Trump’s continued distrust of, and discontent with, the US intelligence agencies are leaving some of the FVEY partners feeling uneasy. Canada recently halted intelligence sharing with the NSA, and there has also been commentary on the matter in Australia, prompting assurances from the Minister for Foreign Affairs that “the close working relationship with US agencies would continue.”

Meanwhile, further potential cracks from within can also be seen in the UK, with a new set of awkward dilemmas surrounding information sharing on Russia, given the ambiguous Trump-Putin situation. This is amidst allegations that the US intelligence agencies themselves may not necessarily abide by full disclosure with the “new, inexperienced administration.” Starting to hold back intelligence goes against the purpose of the Five Eyes and would certainly be detrimental in the long run for Australia.

The advantages provided by Australia’s membership of the Five Eyes web are many and varied; one could consider, for example, the geographical advantage as to the Asia-Pacific area. Access has been made readily available to bulk data harvested on Australia’s side of the world via undersea cable tapping, and then of course there is the use of physical assets for facilitating the sharing of information gathered online such as Pine Gap among others; Singapore and South Korea have been revealed as regional intelligence sources; and Australian banks have recently decided to join in and allow access to customers’ account details.

America has a strong foothold in Australia, arguably as a ‘way into’ Asia; the reverse is, however, not necessarily true. And while little is known of what tangible benefits Australia gains from the Five Eyes membership, it can be quite difficult to determine to what extent that multilateral arrangement is worth it over other regional opportunities. For example, an extradition treaty between Australia and China has been on hold since 2007, and ten years on, ratification is finally being sought. What this means is that Australia would join the ranks of Spain and France, the only two other Western countries to possess such an agreement – and certainly the first of the Five Eyes.

This deal with China is a two-edged sword: “If Australia learns that a person wanted by Chinese officials is indeed residing in Australia, would Australia be obligated to report that information to the Five Eyes? Reporting such information could impair China’s ability to repatriate that individual to its country if a Five Eyes member has human rights concerns or a particular stake in the person’s extradition.” Where do Australia’s loyalties lie?

Following the same train of thought, as another example of conflicting situations in the context of the FVEY alliance, in 2014 Australia was ordered by the International Court of Justice to stop spying on East Timor. It was the first time any of the Five Eyes had had a public slap on the wrist over such an issue. Whether Australia  complied is hard to tell.

Five Eyes membership may come with privileges, but its costs are also substantial for Australia: spying on otherwise friendly nations, remaining limited to similar technology and software – thus being open to the same cyber vulnerabilities, bearing the dark cloud of criticism above the association with the NSA (at home and internationally), tying in by extension in a physical/military capacity, limiting moves with other potential partners on a range of issues, and dealing with constant discussions around oversight.

Yet, FVEY and indeed US intelligence seems as precious as gold — “if you don’t have it, you don’t survive.” As far as Australia is concerned, the enduring closeness with Five Eyes partners in terms of intelligence sharing in the cyber age is “critical for peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.” Membership of an exclusive cyber club is an expensive, addictive drug, which Australia will be unable to readily give up.

Ana Stuparu is a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University. Her research examines the relationship between cyber security and national cultures. She has been in Australia since 2009, after completing undergraduate studies in Switzerland. Ana tweets at @anacanardImage Credit: CC by Jaymis Loveday/Flickr.