Privacy SOS

Who knew secrecy could cost so much?

Try $11 billion for a single year (2011) for the government to maintain its document classification system and do background checks for security clearances, according to the Information Security Oversight Office. 

And this figure – which represents a near threefold increase since 2001 – does not include the cost of guarding the ultra secret documents in the hands of the CIA, NSA and four other spy agencies. Add another $1.2 billion to oversee the classified material in the hands of private contractors. 

Since President Obama on his first day in office signed an executive order committing his Administration to “an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” the cost of keeping government secrets has gone up by more than $2 billion. 

No wonder. There were 76,795,945 classification decisions made in 2010 – eight times the number made in 2001, according to a July 2011 ACLU report, Drastic Measures Required. There are layers of secrecy that cannot even be penetrated by Members of Congress, as we have seen when two Senators raised questions about whether there was a secret interpretation of PATRIOT Act powers and the use being made of the FISA Amendments Act. 

Meanwhile, the number of people requiring time-consuming background checks has also gone steadily up, with an astonishing 1,190,998 holding “Top Security” clearance in 2010, according to a report from the Office of the Director of National Security.

The costs are likely to escalate as the government seeks to stamp out leaks.

The Pentagon’s research arm DARPA is pitching in. It just handed out a $9 million grant to explore ways to mine hundreds of millions of emails and file transfers to detect leakers. 

It is also seeking to fight leaks with a “Fog of Disinformation.” According to Danger Room’s Noah Shachtman, researchers say they’ve built “a prototype for automatically generating and distributing believable misinformation … and then tracking access and attempted misuse of it. We call this ‘disinformation technology.’”

If you want to find out more about the promise of “fog computing,” check out the report “Anomaly Detection at Multiple Scales” produced for DARPA by Allure Security Technology. 

As Steven Aftergood told Danger Room, “If only researchers devoted as much ingenuity to combating spurious secrecy and needless classification. Shrinking the universe of secret information would be a better way to simplify the task of securing the remainder.” 

But such shrinkage seems unlikely to happen in a world in which “national security” trumps all other concerns. Three and a half years after President Obama promised to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration,” the American people are more than ever in the dark. 

“Openness,” the President had said,  “will strengthen our democracy.” Yes, and excessive secrecy is killing it.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.