The fallacy of Unclassified information

The common belief by the public, about Unclassified information; is that it is harmless, general knowledge; available to anyone, and is of little or no strategic value.  Contrary to this belief, the term “Unclassified” refers to information that possesses one or more of the following attributes:

  1. It has never been reviewed for possible security classification.
  2. It previously had been reviewed, and a determination was made that classification was not warranted; at that time.
  3. It previously had been classified, but upon further review, a determination was made that classification was no longer warranted.
  4. After a mandated declassification review, a determination was made that classification was no longer warranted.

The last two points are unique, because mandated declassification reviews are regulatory in nature.  Declassification that occurs due to “further review” is initiated out of common sense, by those who work with the classified information.

The United States uses at least two levels of security classification taxonomy.  The highest taxonomy level classifies information according to the amount of damage to national security that could occur if information was improperly disclosed.  The lowest level classifies information according to the amount of safeguarding and dissemination that is required to protect national interests.  Information that does not damage national security, or is not in the national interest; is supposed to be Unclassified.

By default, all information is Unclassified.  As such, it may not be the specific information itself that becomes classified, but rather a specific application that does.  Certain chemical and material reactions may be known, as general knowledge, but knowledge pertaining to a specific military application may be highly classified.  Nuclear fission comes to mind, as one such example.  Theoretical knowledge about nuclear fission dates back to 1911.  And in 1934, Leo Szilard filed a patent [GB630726 (A)] which describes a primitive atomic bomb (look for the words “explode” and “explosion”).  The patent was issued in 1936 and was promptly classified.

Information can also become classified through the process of aggregation.  In classification through aggregation, two or more pieces of Unclassified information come together, like a puzzle, creating a new piece of classified information.  As an example; if you see the President getting on a particular train in the morning, and somebody else knows he has a 9:00 meeting, it is possible to aggregate those two pieces of information into knowing exactly what time he is going to get off the train.  But what becomes classified is the new piece of information; the component pieces of information remain Unclassified.

Once information becomes classified, there are two reasons why it should become declassified; relevancy and cost.  If the reasoning for why a piece of information became classified is no longer relevant, it becomes a “junk secret.”  Too many junk secrets become a cost burden for a government’s Classification Management System (CMS).

It is for reasons of cost, that many government agencies initiate audits of their classified information, looking for declassification candidates.  In contrast, relevancy drives many of the mandated declassification reviews; as often times a public interest advocacy, such as the Public Interest Declassification Board is involved.

Regarding to the matter of harmlessness, information that is Unclassified conveys no such assurance.  Such information can still be harmful, simply because it has not yet been reviewed.  Or if it had been reviewed, a determination was made that it posed no threat to national security or interests.  Such information however, can still be harmful to either public or private interests.

When dealing with Unclassified information that is harmful to public or private interests; such matters are customarily resolved through the use of criminal and civil laws, and proceedings.  These same resolutions are also used for national security and interests.  However, information that is classified because of national security or interests, benefits from proactive protections afforded it by a government run Classification Management System (CMS).

The Assurer has more than 30 years experience working with both Classified and Unclassified government information.  He also holds a DoD Facility Security Officer (FSO) certificate.  If you or your organization requires assistance in working with Classified information, please contact The Assurer for a consultation.

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