Photographs courtesy of the National Archives
The classification system was created seventy years ago in an era of paper and later copier paper. Secret information was meant to be shared sparingly and disseminated to only those few Federal Government officials with a “need to know.” With the end of the Cold War, the classification system has not evolved to counter new national security threats. As the information age changed rapidly from paper to an electronic era, the classification system is unable to keep up with the dramatic changes in information creation. Filing cabinets full of paper have been replaced by gigabytes, yottabytes, and zettabytes of information created and stored within virtual systems. Managing this unimaginable volume of data requires entirely new policies unencumbered by a Cold War and paper-based mindset.
Classification and declassification are not keeping pace with the myriad of challenges facing the system: digital information creation, access for cleared persons, existing backlogs of paper holdings awaiting declassification review, long-term storage requirements, or the rights of a democratic society to as much information as possible about its Government. Agencies still review records for declassification line-by-line and page-by-page. This process is unsustainable and will not work when dealing with petabytes and gigabytes of information.
Available technologies are rarely used to meet current needs; neither are agencies preparing to use these technologies to handle the enormous volume of digital records. As a result, the Government is currently unable to preserve or provide access to a great many important records. Agencies should collaborate on policy, share technologies, pilot tests, promote best practices and develop common standards.
That is why we believe the best way to promote inter-agency collaboration, integrate technology, and reform classification processes is for the President to appoint a White House-led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee and hold them accountable for developing new methods to modernize classification and declassification. The Steering Committee would be responsible for managing the implementation of reforms required to transform current classification and declassification guidance and practice.
Part of this modernization effort will require pilot projects to test new and existing technologies that can support new policies that allow for efficient and effective classification and declassification. These pilot projects should begin at the National Declassification Center and would investigate methods for automating and streamlining declassification, away from resource-intensive and inefficient page-by-page reviews. Later, pilot projects should explore how technology could be used to combat over-classification and improve classification.
The ultimate goal of the pilot projects is to discover, develop, and deploy technology that will:
- Automate and streamline declassification and classification processes, and ensure integration with electronic records management systems.
- Provide tools for preservation, search, storage, scalability, review for access, and security application.
- Address cyber security concerns, especially when integrating open source information into classified systems.
- Standardize metadata generation and tagging, creating a government-wide metadata registry, drawing on lessons learned from the intelligence community.
- Accommodate complex volumes of data (e.g. email, non-structured data, and video teleconferencing information).
- Advance government-wide information management practices by supporting the President’s Memorandum on Managing Government Records.
Policymakers have the opportunity to transform the classification and declassification system to one that meets the needs of today’s digital information age. The use of technology will be critical to the modernization of the system.