Transforming the Five Eyes Community: Projecting Power in Cyberspace

Transforming the Five Eyes Community: Projecting Power in Cyberspace

In the past decade, key events have found the Five Eyes – a largely unknown Anglo-American postwar signals intelligence partnership – navigating a new, prominent global role. These include the Snowden disclosures on US and allied surveillance programs, joint statements on encryptioncyber incident response and attribution, and more prominently, the US-led campaign to enlist its Five Eyes partners to sideline Huawei from 5G network development.


Scholars and observers of intelligence have contextualized recent developments by offering a historical perspective on the alliance from its wartime origins. Despite recent public disagreements, the Five Eyes nonetheless have much to gain by cooperating on growing threats while strong interpersonal relations at times smooth differences during crises. These approaches can tell us about the alliance’s resilience but very little about its change over time. As a subfield within a subfield, intelligence cooperation has a reproductive but not transformative logic (to paraphrase John Ruggie).

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Understanding the Five Eyes’ contemporary relevance means exploring how the US leverages its partners to project power in cyberspace – spying, subverting and sabotaging the global communications environment for intelligence advantage and effect while denying the same to adversaries. A broader perspective on how technology shapes intelligence transformation offers an analytically meaningful way to discuss the nature of cooperation, and its continuity and change over time. In particular, the access and price of technology are key factors that affect the nature and changing meanings of intelligence cooperation. During the Cold War, the analog world, with its mostly discrete point-to-point communications links, shaped the character of intelligence cooperation as did the change to networked and varied global communications characterizing the digital age. 

Technological Change and the Five Eyes

During the Cold War, access to the communications environment consisted of passive collection against discrete communications systems. Consequently, intelligence was labour-intensive, faced higher entry barriers, and was primarily directed at foreign systems. These requirements reinforced the geographic demands for allied cooperation. Still it was far from anything like an integrated whole until the technological changes in foreign satellite interception created the need for more structured and integrated alliance relations in the 1990s. More importantly, the discrete communications links meant that there was little conflict between attacking and defending against foreign systems. 


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The globalization of networked communications and threats created further impetus for a transformation in foreign partnerships. The characteristics of digital networks and devices and the protocols that govern them imply our communications are fundamentally insecure and are subject to territorial control. Because of the nature of global communications, the US has an enormous “home field advantage,” and leverages geography with its other partners in international telecommunications networks. These passive collection capabilities are complemented by efforts to break into networks and devices by bypassing or breaking encryption and are used to track targets. These efforts have brought the Five Eyes closer together in annual Signals Development Conferences to collaborate and share tradecraft. But as a result of technological change, these activities have caused controversies within and outside of the alliance relating to: metadata sharing and privacy, in the former; and weakening trust in our digital infrastructure and the private sector in the latter.

The characteristics of digital networks and devices and the protocols that govern them imply our communications are fundamentally insecure and are subject to territorial control.

As the threat to military networks and critical infrastructure grew, US Cyber Command stood up to work closely with allies to integrate cyber defence and offence. Since 2011, Cyber Flag exercises bring together military personnel across the Five Eyes to prepare for cyber-attacks and defend critical networks and form a key part of building operational capacity. In 2016, Cyber Command in concert with allies in Joint Task Force-Ares conducted Operation Glowing Symphony against ISIS. “What we recognize,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Fogarty, commander of Army Cyber Command said, “is we have some foreign partners that give us very unique access or very unique capabilities. They operate off of different authorities that compliment our own authorities so they are very, very important.” Given the “speed, scope, and scale” of engaging targets in cyberspace during the operation, recommendations for allies focused on improving deconfliction mechanisms. 

Why does this matter?

The Five Eyes’ contemporary relevance must be understood in the context of intelligence transformation and the need for the US to leverage its allies to project power in cyberspace. By focusing on burden sharing, traditional intelligence cooperation approaches need to be complemented with understanding how technology transforms the alliance in a novel technological domain. It is clear that the US and allies will be conducting “more frequent and widely-scoped operations throughout the global internet infrastructure in the future.” These changes run the risk of creating alliance friction and overall lack clarity on how they relate to broader international strategies designed to ensure a free, open, and resilient Internet. While Operation Glowing Symphony was noted for its restraint, the same cannot be said about intelligence activities nor whether these distinctions matter in practice to adversaries. As the return of great power competition over critical technologies emerges, the Five Eyes will continue to play a more prominent role in addressing these challenges. 


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Take a sneek peak out the next blog in this series, New Zealand in the Five Eyes Intelligence Network: Assessing the Challenges and Benefits of Membership by David MacDonald (University of Guelph)
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