secrecy {fragments}

~ musings on secrecy ~

Precautionary Principle for Information

I wrote the following piece in 2000, and never really did anything with it. With the almost intractable use of secrecy, it seems the right time to unveil the Precautionary Principle for Information. This idea came to me while at The Wingspread Precautionary Principle conference.

The Principle doesn’t really say anything new, but it does integrate ideas that have been tossed about in the freedom of information and gov secrecy research lit for decades. The ideas of Steve Aftergood, John Perry Barlow, Brian Martin, Neil Postman, and the work of Congressman John Moss and the American Society of Newspapers Editors are among the influences in writing the Principle. I’ve also borrowed ideas from biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, especially his general systems theory, which I think enhance the philosophy of information ecology.

Precautionary Principle for Information

As information is an energetic property of systems, and is a primary ingredient in democratic participation as well as in the pursuit of self-determination for all peoples, it should be preserved, protected, cherished, and allowed to move across boundaries, technologies, and human systems.

Within this philosophy…

We should begin discussions of information rights with the supposition that information should be free. [1]

Information is rhizomatic; it interpenetrates chains of being, ecosystems, academic discipline, and cultural systems. Information reduces dissonance and aids in the recovery and equilibrium of spirit, purpose, and autonomy.

Information should be handled with precaution, keeping in mind that it can become a form of bias and pollution if not constructed and used with care and conscience.

Information is not neutral. Information is political. It can be used to repress and restrict.

Information is social. Its use is empowering, and far-reaching.

The “fallacy of autonomous technology and emanative development and use” holds that if a technology can be developed, it should be, and if it is, its use cannot be stopped (Marx 1997: 51). We can use this fallacy for information, which is often carried on the communicative wings of technology. More technology used as a carrier of data, facts and information does not lead to wisdom or greater participation in world events. In fact, it may have an opposite effect in creating information anxiety, overload and dissonance (Georg Simmel as discussed in Wurman, p. 143). Extending the fallacy to the Precautionary Principle of Information, deterministic policy fixes which advance information or communication technologies (ICT) as the sole source of increased literacy, greater access to information, or  social and political participation, would do well to frame technology discussions using a human systems approach that include honest discussions concerning privacy, surveillance, power, and equity.[2]

Government should inquire of citizens what they want revealed about their collective past (political assassinations, psychological operations, national security decisions, experiments, scientific investigations, corporate ties, spying, domestic and abroad, etc.), realizing that trust in information forms the basis of  trust and confidence in government and also influences personal autonomy.

Establish codes of ethics and conduct for the collection, preservation, storage, and handling of intelligence information across federal agencies and associated environments.

Reform the Freedom of Information Act. That is, place the burden of document retrieval on the agency, not the media or citizens. The creation of a bureaucratic “peer review” system to check a FOIA officer’s determinations and biases concerning FOIA’s exemptions and reasons for nondisclosure of documents is also in order. [I wrote this pre-Card Memo, so it’s even more critical today.]

Establish a national declassification center to coordinate public access policy. This means going beyond FOIA to a comprehensive right to know, based on a fundamental right of access and right to participate in government, not a limited, narrow access to a set of documents or pieces of information. [3]

Even the most fundamental of past government information abuses and information crimes [information tampering, the spread of propaganda, censorship for example] must be subject to reexamination and reform, unhampered by the Office Management and Budget, Executive Branch, military, Intelligence Community and others. [4]

Government, including the Office of the President, and Congress, should be required by law to archive, preserve, and make public all information on national security policies, meetings, and actions.

For classified information, follow Laurent R. Hourcle’s recommendations:

Create a database of classified documents | Require specific declassification dates for classified information | Create a “record of decision” system wherein those classifiers would document their reasons why they segregated information | Define a public involvement role for the public

Formerly recognize the public as a legitimate consumer of intelligence (Aftergood 1996). Section 103 of the National Security Act should be amended to “recognize the American public as an authorized consumer of intelligence, consistent with legitimate security requirements.”

Government information policy should ensure integrity of information, addressing issue of information pollution. [5]

Immediately implement the recommendations of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy: [6]

Agencies better structure their records management and systematic declassification programs.

Establish a permanent advisory panel to provide for regular input and advice on agency declassification procedures.

Use of sources and methods as a basis for the continuing classification of intelligence information be clarified through the issuance of an Intelligence Community directive.

Reject the notion that citizens are not informed data collectors, analyzers, and interpreters of government policy, history, and research.

Strengthen the people’s right to know; give bureaucrats the regulatory range to comply with openness.

The many technologies that gather, store, and maintain information on American citizens should be made public to them through the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act, fully unredacted, and in a prompt manner. [7]

Within a public, transparent space, right to know and need to know must be openly and honestly discussed in terms of government ownership of  information and the ability of citizens to participate in decision making under potential information restrictions.


[1] See testimony of Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists to the House Committee on Government Operations, Legislation and National Security Subcommittee Government Secrecy after the Cold War. One Hundred Second Congress, Second Session, March 18, 1992 In his testimony, Mr. Aftergood cites the Report of the Defense Science Task Force on Secrecy (1970) that states “more might be gained than lost if our nation were to adopt – unilaterally,  a policy of complete openness in all areas of information…”

[2] This is not an absolute; numerous examples of Internet activism exist, e.g. the Zapatistas. The point is we must not confuse technology with activism. It is information that still remains the impetus for action. Technology is the carrier of altruism and action [in this latter case, I am thinking of G.H. Mead].

[3] Paul McMasters. Going Beyond FOIA. In Sunshine and Secrecy: The Freedom of Information Act Turns 30. Arlington, VA: The Freedom Forum World Center, 1997. The National Declassification Center was established in 2009.

[4] See Jeff Howard’s Eight Tenets of Precaution: Commentary on the Wingspread.

[5] See the GODORT Principles on Government Information, Principle #7.

[6] Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Report. Senate Document 105-2  Pursuant to Public Law 236 103 rd Congress, 1997.

[7] This is a Fair Information Practice.

Works Cited

Hourcle, Laurent R. Military Secrecy and Environmental Compliance. New York University Environmental Law Journal 2 no. 2 (1993).

Marx. Gary. Questions to Ask and Techno-Fallacies to Avoid in the Consideration of New Information Technologies. Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering Community: Critical Explorations of Computing as a Social Practice Ed. Philip Agre and Douglas Schuler. Greenwich, CT: Ablex, 1997.  47-5.

Creative Commons License
My work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
View Commons Deed | Legal Code


Written by S.

July 11, 2011 at 2:46 am