Setec Astronomy: Too Many Secrets?

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The NYTimes had an insightful article on the downside of Setec Astronomy, or Too Many Secrets. Within the hundreds of thousands of  "Secret" documents released by Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks, the number of true secrets was infinitesimal. Why do government officials feel the need to classify everything? As always, look at the incentives. There are three key reasons:

  • Duty: Some people have a true sense of protecting the best interests of the country
  • CYA: No bureaucrat ever was fired for saying "no", and no intelligence official was ever reprimanded for making something obvious a secret, but undoubtedly many have been reprimanded for not classifying something that should have been.
  • Feelings: Everyone needs to feel that their work is special. In government, that feeling is provided by access to classified information. Individuals have an emotional, if sometimes unconscious, desire to increase the sense of access to secrets.

The problems of overclassification are threefold:

  1. Self-Damage: By making information confidential, you restrict and damage your ability to respond to events that are already public. You cannot speak publicly to correct media errors. Making the information "Secret" actually hurt the classifier's organization.
  2. Desensitization: To paraphrase Frederick II or Von Clausewitz, "he who classifies everything, classifies nothing." At a certain point, your people begin to ignore your classifications when a brand-new satellite program has the same classification as the breakfast menu.
  3. Motivation: The article quotes Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists: "The reality is that much is classified just to take the issue off the public agenda." While a problem in and of itself, when people see that the motivation for classification is not only inane, as in the breakfast menu, but self-serving, respect for the entire system goes out the window.

Every one of these issues applies to secrecy in business. I have worked with companies that share everything, those that share absolutely nothing, and much in between. Executive management has a legitimate need to keep some secrets. This is so true, let's repeat it: Executive management has a legitimate need to keep some secrets.

The problem comes when there is an instinctive tendency towards secrecy. Let's be honest: there are very few real secrets inside a company. The rumour mill is always strong, and information leaks. When secrecy is used extremely judiciously, it serves its purpose. When it is overly used, the same three major issues occur:

  1. Self-Damage: Good and bad things happen every day inside the company. By unnecessarily marking information as secret, you restrict your ability to respond to events and perform damage control. Is that major enhancement really top secret? Would knowledge of it have allowed your salesperson to close that deal instead of losing it to a competitor? Is that new HR plan really confidential? Would you have been able to retain those two key employees if your VP Engineering could have shared it?
  2. Desensitization: When those in the know see yet another "secret" for no good reason, they will treat it as less valuable and the leaks will increase instead of decrease. The one guaranteed way to increase leaks is to increase secrets, and it isn't linear. This is just human behaviour.
  3. Motivation: When secrets do leak - and everything eventually does - employees will begin to see not just silliness but maliciousness. If they perceive the purpose of the secrecy as self-protection or aggrandizement instead of company protection, they will question the leader's integrity.

How do you know when you have a problem?

  • Hyperactive rumour mill
  • Too many closed doors
  • Distrust of executives
  • Ask people, they will tell you, or at least someone who can gain their trust without political agenda; that has been at least half of my consulting career
  • "Setec Astronomy": it just feels like too much is secret

These can be combatted and health restored to the system. But as they say in AA, first you have to recognize the problem, then you need to seek help.