Probably, the one thing that comes to your mind whenever you want to access the web securely and safely is a VPN service. A Virtual Private Network or VPN is the easiest solution for maintaining privacy and anonymity while browsing the web.
However, in spite of tall claims of keeping no data logs, many VPN services are actually subject to certain countries’ surveillance activities. This implies that even though your VPN may guarantee you 100% anonymity while browsing the web, there is a high chance that your government is monitoring your online activity.
This is especially true for the VPNs which are located in the countries that are a member of the 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes or 14 Eyes group.
What is the 5 Eyes Group?
During World War II, the government of the United States and the United Kingdom entered into an agreement to share intelligence with each other for the mutual benefit in war efforts.
The agreement was called the USUK Agreement under which a surveillance program called the Echelon was launched to collect data on online activities of the Soviet Union and China. This led to the birth of the 5 Eyes Group.
After the war ended, the program stopped serving any military use. However, the agreement was used by these two countries to set up a system of global surveillance to monitor the online activities of their citizens.
Eventually, Canada, New Zealand and Australia also joined this surveillance group making it a 5 country group and therefore, it has come to be known as 5 Eyes. Each of the member countries has multiple agencies conducting surveillance on online data which is pooled together, analyzed and shared with other members.
For example, in the US, the FBI, the CIA and the NSA are three of the main agencies which are also a part of the activities of the 5 Eyes.
How Do The 5 Eyes Operate?
The countries which are members of the 5 Eyes group have passed various laws and regulations which have given the government legal access to all its citizens’ browsing activity. Therefore, even if you are using a VPN service located in these 5 Eyes countries, your government can track your activity by compelling your VPN to give up the data logged through the SSL encryption key.
In fact, this is exactly how the US government caught the activities of Edward Snowden. Even though Snowden was using a VPN, the US government asked the FBI to serve a subpoena to the VPN provider compelling them to give up Snowden’s records and activities.
The US government has also been running the PRISM Program by which the government is able to collect data from hundreds of ISPs all over the country. The ISPs have also been granted the legal right to sell their users’ activity to third parties.
Talking about the UK, they are much more transparent about their surveillance activities but are equal in the measure when it comes to the abuse of privacy. The UK government passed a law called the Investigatory Powers Act, 2016. Through this law, all internet service providers and telecom companies are made to record the browsing history of their users.
This data can be extracted at any time by the government without needing a warrant or subpoena. Australia has various and similar laws too, which enable the country’s internet service providers to keep records of the users’ data and which are available to the government at all times.
What is The 9 Eyes Group?
The 9 Eyes Group is a group of 9 countries which have entered into an agreement to record and share global surveillance data with each other. This group comprises of all the countries which are members of the 5 Eyes group along with Denmark, France, Netherlands and Norway as additional members. The scope and nature of activities of the 9 Eyes Group is very much similar to that of the 5 Eyes group and is seen as an extension of the 5 Eyes alliance.
What is the 14 Eyes Group?
Comprising almost entirely of European countries with the exception of the US, Australia and New Zealand, the 14 Eyes Group is officially known as the SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR). It is a further extension of the 9 Eyes group and comprises of all the members of the 9 Eyes along with Germany, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Spain as additional members.
The original surveillance agreement, though signed only between the US and the UK has now been extended to cover all of these 14 countries also. Under the agreement, these countries cannot use their surveillance data to spy on each other but they can use the data of its own citizens collected by another member country for national interests.
Several countries, though not officially listed as members of any of the above groups, nevertheless fall into the suspicious category due to their surveillance activities. For example, Israel is the ‘official observer’ for the 5 Eyes Group and works closely with US’ NSA.
Similarly, countries like Singapore, South Korea and Japan have also been reported to be surveillance partners to the US and UK though they may not have any official agreement yet. Certain British Overseas Territories may also fall into the surveillance net, due to the legally binding ties with the UK.
How You Can Avoid Surveillance Through VPNs
A simple VPN service provides very limited protection to a user’s browsing data. Even though the VPN may have a ‘no logs’ policy, it is still subject to its country’s laws and can be compelled to give up sensitive information through a court warrant. Some users prefer to use offshore VPN service providers i.e. those VPNs that are not located in the surveillance countries. However, even that does not serve the purpose because such VPNs’ privacy policies are even more of a quagmire and are often designed to deceive users.
Our suggestion is to go for a multi-hop VPN chain in which the user’s browsing activity is routed through not just one VPN but rather several hops before finally gaining access to the internet. This provides the users with many additional layers of protection and ensures that even if the government does want to monitor the activity, they will find it difficult to get all the data from one source. Some of the highly recommended multi-hop VPNs are Switzerland's based Perfect Privacy, Romania’s VPN.ac, Panama’s NordVPN and Belize's based Zorro VPN.