Jan 25, 2018 in Research

International Homeland Security

This paper is a review of the journal article “Protecting Sensitive Information: The Virtue of Self-Restraint” by Dallas Boyd published in Homeland Security Affairs, Vol 7(2) on December 2011. The paper addresses the major ideas discussed in the article.

Government Information Relates to Public Information

Boyd (2011) notes that a good number of journalists have approached the issue of sensitive information with a lot of skepticism. Most of them find it difficult to draw a distinction between the public and sensitive information. The writer analyses the meaningful boundaries of both kinds of information stating the fact that most of what is classified as sensitive information is produced and preserved using public funds. Boyd approaches the critical issue of protecting sensitive information and divulges a number of issues related to the process of classifying information. He poses a question whether releasing sensitive information benefits terrorists more than it does to the public that in any case does not need that information. According to Boyd (2011), “The central question is whether the availability of unclassified knowledge benefits adversaries more than it advantages the public”.

The issue of practicing responsibility while reporting on sensitive information is of central concern to the media fraternity. Inasmuch as the media want to practice patriotism by evaluating the nature of certain information before releasing it to the public in the name of gate keeping, this is sometimes done to the detriment of the public (White, 2011). It is important to remember that most of the information held by the government belongs to people. Such information is generated and preserved using public funds. However, the public may demand to access this information irrespective of the vulnerability that such action poses to the nation. Boyd notes that a solution of this problem is to practice by the public and the media a culture of self-restrain and a “sense of civic duty”, when it comes to the issue of sensitive information that may be of interest to the adversaries. This, he argues will help in circumventing the draconian restrictions of free speech.

Boyd delves deeply into the issue of releasing sensitive information to the public especially when a lack of such information can be fatal to the public. This information is in no doubt critical to the public in areas where accidents are to be avoided. However, terrorists and malicious people can easily pick up this information and use it against the same public. He quotes physicist Leo Szilard who had said that releasing such information to the public, “clearly indicates the road along which every other nation must follow”. Statistics points to be cautious while giving information to the public. Boyd observes that the issue of “over classification” by the government should not arise, if the right judgment is that giving certain information to the public will serve more harm than good to the country.

With proliferation in technology advancement, a lot of information, which can potentially be classified as sensitive, is freely found in the public. A case in point is the 1964, commissioning of none experienced person by the US government to use public information to make an atomic bomb. To the surprise of many, this group of three people easily made an atomic bomb using the information that was freely available to the public. An issue of moral concern then arises about just how much information is available to the public. The question asked by many is whether information creators have done enough to shield the public and even the terrorists from accessing information that is harmful. Boyd suggests that critiques of classification of sensitive information should decisively evaluate the amount of the information already available to the public before pointing a finger to the government for its efforts to shield the public from harmful information (Fernandes, 2011).

Boyd advocates vehemently for self-restraint and self-censorship as the best ways of ensuring that sensitive information does not reach the hands of wrong people. However, the degree and level of self-restraint and self-censorship relies on the type of information that is being classified. For instance, the public will tend to demand more information if that information is held for political reasons by individuals in the government. Similarly, the journalists are likely to sacrifice their self-censorship, if the information has a higher market value attached to it. However, it should be remembered that all these are done in pursuit of civic duty.

Moreover, Dallas Boyd argues that journalists and scientists can disseminate enough information to the public in a civic manner without compromising their values. Boyd claims that the rubric of  “public right” to know should not be used as a panacea of releasing sensitive information to the public, noting that more than enough information is already in the hands of terrorists. Boyd disapproves journalists’ intention to release sensitive information to the public in the practice of civil disobedience by given the fact that terrorists can get the information.

In conclusion, it is generally expected that sensitive information should be kept away from the public irrespective of whether it is immoral to do so or not. However, this classification should not be done to the levels when an access to important information is denied to the public. Thus, civic duty should be emphasized when it comes to the accession of sensitive information in the hands of the government. Discussions on free speech concerning sensitive information should not lead to irresponsible acts among information’s custodian to the detriment of the public.


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