A Call for Self-Restraint in Disclosure of Sensitive Information

Instead of imposing mandatory new legal restrictions on publication of sensitive information, the nation would be better off if scientists, journalists and others adopted an ethic of self-restraint in what they choose to publish, a provocative new paper suggests.

“An abundance of information that could be useful to terrorists is available in the open literature,” wrote analyst Dallas Boyd.  But that doesn’t mean it should be censored by law.  “A soft consensus seems to have formed that airing this information does not subtract from national security to such an extent as to justify the extraordinary powers that would be required to suppress it.”

“An alternative to draconian restrictions on speech entails fostering a culture of voluntary restraint, in which citizens refrain from inappropriate revelations out of a sense of civic duty.  Its enforcement would depend not on government coercion but on individuals and institutions supplying disapproval of irresponsible discussion,” he suggested.

“Stigmatization of those who recklessly disseminate sensitive information… would be aided by the fact that many such people are unattractive figures whose writings betray their intellectual vanity.  The public should be quick to furnish the opprobrium that presently escapes these individuals,” he wrote, without quite naming names.  “The need to influence the behavior of scientists is particularly acute.”

The 23-page paper (pdf) contains an extensive account of past disclosures that the author deems questionable or irresponsible, and a thoughtful assessment of the feasibility of his own proposal.

“Perhaps the greatest obstacle to sanitizing discussion of sensitive information is the unresolved question of its harmfulness,” Mr. Boyd wrote.  Indeed, it is often not possible to state definitively that certain information poses an unambiguous hazard. It is typically even more difficult to persuade a publisher of such material to modify his disclosure practices.

Overall, the Boyd paper tends to reinforce the “soft consensus” that new legal restrictions on dissemination of information are to be avoided.  But in most cases, those who are likely to be receptive to the appeal of voluntary self-restraint on publication of sensitive data probably have already embraced it.

“Protecting Sensitive Information: The Virtue of Self-Restraint” by Dallas Boyd was published in Homeland Security Affairs, volume 7, May 2011.  A copy is posted here.

No Responses to “A Call for Self-Restraint in Disclosure of Sensitive Information”

  1. dustime8 May 27, 2011 at 11:08 PM #

    Self restraint vs ego, we all know the winner of this confrontation.

  2. DrunkScientist May 27, 2011 at 11:27 PM #

    Who you callin’ unattractive?

  3. kyrpepaske May 28, 2011 at 1:47 AM #

    Ahahah intellectual vanity of Boyd’s article is amusing how much he was paid to write this, thou must obey article?

    If citizens know what elite knows why this is so bad?

    Any rational being whom is been doings with army, can obtain information develope it onwards and analyze the weaknesses anyhow with some help. All thought those with such gift in strategic thinking that they can challenge established status quo is rather rare.

    Mostly question seems to be is the elite safe from sheeples, that will swarm all over the place if leadership fails?

  4. Jay May 28, 2011 at 8:20 AM #

    Ah. “Security through obscurity”. Already been shown to be a VERY BAD idea. Dallas Boyd is not a deep thinker

  5. ref May 28, 2011 at 9:15 AM #

    The public should be quick to furnish the opprobrium that presently escapes these individuals.
    Does this mean free furniture for the honest ugly people?

  6. DaveK May 28, 2011 at 10:55 AM #

    It’s important for the public not to know anything. Otherwise they might be able to participate meaningfully in democracy.

  7. Simon Jester May 28, 2011 at 11:00 AM #

    Loose lips may sink ships, but self-censorship enables tyranny.

  8. Albatross May 28, 2011 at 4:09 PM #

    In less dramatic terms, individuals are not trained in the evaluation of information sensitivity, and cannot be reasonably asked to determine what is or is not sensitive information. You may ASK people to voluntarily withhold information, and they may TRY, but being untrained they’re simply going to let different but no less sensitive information slip.

    It’s akin to asking a clinic worker not to reveal that Steffani Germanotta has entered the clinic. They willingly refrain from using her name, but mention to a friend “This woman showed up at the clinic wearing a dress made from MEAT.”

  9. pj May 28, 2011 at 5:03 PM #

    “An alternative to draconian restrictions on speech entails fostering a culture of voluntary restraint, in which citizens refrain from inappropriate revelations out of a sense of civic duty.”

    This completely disregards the fact that a lot of public disclosure takes place out of a sense of civic duty. Too often, people pointing a problem out to authorities will result in a response like “well, nobody else has noticed yet, keep it quiet like a good fellow will you?” rather than fixing the problem. Public disclosure a set priod after disclosure to the authorities is the responsible way of doing things. On the idea that “The public should be quick to furnish the opprobrium that presently escapes these individuals” “who recklessly disseminate sensitive information”…. are the authorities to be trusted about whom they say we should stigmatize for telling us things that those in power don’t want us to know?

  10. Cellar May 29, 2011 at 3:43 AM #

    So “everyone” will “voluntarily” shut up about problems, trouble, things needing whistleblowing, that sort of thing, and instead spends time gossiping “stigmatising” fellow citizens who “couldn’t keep their mouths shut”. It’s but a small step to actively start rat on each other for, well, anything and nothing, really.

    We’ve tried this, or at least the east germans tried. They did it for love, too; their head of the secret police apparatus very (in)famously said so, literally. They got sick of it.

    The bottom line is that shutting up and making others shut up is detrimental to the open, democratic state. There’s a reason certain parties insist that being a republic is far superior to being a democracy. Some, highly profitable, horse trading doesn’t work so well when exposed.

    Yet the good of people is in the long run always helped best by honesty. The best way to secure secrets is to not have any. The best way to run a state is to make it function well in such an environment. It is also the ultimate defence. If you are unassailable then nobody will even think to try.

    This sort of report really is only possible in an environment where there are, what was it again, 1251 different US agencies busying themselves with some “homeland security” related thing or other. Nobody knows what anyone else is doing. There’s too many secrets and no oversight.

    It’s inevitable bad things will happen and thus they do happen. Now, instead of fixing them, as that has become too onerous a task, we’re shuffling them under the carpet wholesale, and making everyone do the same. “Nothing to see here, move along now, y’hear.”

    I say no. This is a good a reason as any. The secrecy must stop.