is the practice of sharing information
among a group of people, which can be as small as one person, while hiding it from all others. That which is kept hidden is known as the secret
. Secrecy is often controversial. Many people claim that, at least in some situations, it is better for everyone if everyone knows all the facts—there should be no secrets. Many biologists also claim that, with possible exceptions, it is better for everyone if the spread of information from its origins is as slow as possible - there should be as much secrecy and privacy
as possible. The closely allied, perhaps even synonymous notions of confidentiality
are often considered virtues. Although this belief is held by many people, most argue that it is taken out of context. William Penn
wrote, "It is wise not to seek a secret; and honest, not to reveal one.
Natural and sociological secrecy
Secrecy is built into biology. One reason for sexual reproduction
may be to allow members of a species to share genetic improvements without those improvements becoming available to competitors. Animals
, including humans (in some cases), conceal the location of their den
attempt to consciously conceal aspects of themselves from others due to shame
, or from fear
of rejection, loss of acceptance
, or loss of employment
. On a deeper level, humans attempt to conceal aspects of their own self
which they are not capable of incorporating psychologically into their conscious
sometimes maintain "family secrets", obliging family members never discuss disagreeable issues concerning the family, either with those outside the family and sometimes even within the family. Many "family secrets" are maintained by using a mutually agreed-upon construct (an official family story) when speaking with outside members. Agreement to maintain the secret is often coerced through "shaming" and reference to family honor
. The information may even be something as trivial as a recipe
Keeping one's strategy secret is important in many aspects of game theory.
Secret sharing (anthropology)
In anthropology secret sharing
is one way for men to establish traditional relations with other men. A commonly used Academic
narrative that describes this kind of behavior is Joseph Conrad
's The Secret Sharer
. Another traditional way for men to establish such relations is through an exchange of women
often attempt to conceal information from other governments and the public. These state secrets
can include weapon
designs, military plans, diplomatic negotiation
tactics, and secrets obtained illicitly from others ("intelligence
"). Most nations have some form of Official Secrets Act
(the Espionage Act
in the U.S.
) and classify material according to the level of protection needed (hence the term "classified information
"). An individual needs a security clearance
for access and other protection methods, such as keeping documents in a safe
, are stipulated.
Few people dispute the desirability of keeping Critical Nuclear Weapon Design Information secret, but many believe government secrecy to be excessive and too often employed for political purposes. Many countries have laws that attempt to limit government secrecy, such as the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and sunshine laws. Government officials sometimes leak information they are supposed to keep secret. (For a recent (2005) example, see Plame affair.)
Secrecy in elections is a growing issue, particularly secrecy of vote counts on computerized vote counting machines. While voting, citizens are acting in a unique sovereign or "owner" capacity (instead of being a subject of the laws, as is true outside of elections) in selecting their government servants. It is argued that secrecy is impermissible as against the public in the area of elections where the government gets all of its power and taxing authority. In any event, permissible secrecy varies significantly with the context involved.
Organizations, ranging from multi-national for profit corporations
to nonprofit charities
, keep secrets for competitive advantage
, to meet legal requirements, or, in some cases, to conceal nefarious behavior. New products under development, unique manufacturing techniques, or simply lists of customers are types of information protected by trade secret
laws. The patent
system encourages inventors to publish information in exchange for a limited time monopoly
on its use, though patent applications are initially secret. Secret societies
use secrecy as a way to attract members by creating a sense of importance.
Other laws require organizations to keep certain information secret, such as medical records (HIPAA in the U.S.), or financial reports that are under preparation (to limit insider trading). Europe has particularly strict laws about database privacy.
In many countries, neoliberal reforms of government have included expanding the outsourcing of government tasks and functions to private businesses with the aim of improving efficiency and effectiveness in government administration. However, among the criticisms of these reforms is the claim that the pervasive use of "Commercial-in-confidence" (or secrecy) clauses in contracts between government and private providers further limits public accountability of governments and prevents proper public scrutiny of the performance and probity of the private companies. Concerns have been raised that 'commercial-in-confidence' is open to abuse because it can be deliberately used to hide corporate or government maladministration and even corruption. A string of publicly scandalous revelations about poor, wasteful or corrupt management of government-funded private contracts left unchecked for lengthy periods, often in prison management, has added credence to the views of skeptics about the prudency of the neoliberal reforms themselves.
Preservation of secrets is one of the goals of information security
. Techniques used include physical security
. The latter depends on the secrecy of cryptographic keys
. Secrecy is central to organized crime
. Many believe that security technology can be more effective if it itself is not kept secret.
Information hiding is a design principle in much software engineering. It is considered easier to verify software reliability if one can be sure that different parts of the program only have access to certain information.
Hazards of secrecy
Excessive secrecy is often cited as a source of much human conflict. One may have to lie
in order to hold a secret, which might lead to psychological
repercussions. The alternative, declining to answer when asked something, may suggest the answer and may therefore not always be suitable for keeping a secret. Also, the other may insist that one answers the question. Nearly 2500 years ago, Sophocles
wrote, "Do nothing secretly; for Time sees and hears all things, and discloses all."
, the Buddha
, once said "Three things cannot long stay hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth
A military secret
information that is purposely not made available to the general public and hence to any enemy, by the military
in order to gain an advantage or to not reveal a weakness, avoid embarrassment
or to help in propaganda
Most military secrets are military in nature, such as the strengths and weaknesses of weapons systems, tactics, training methods, number and location of specific weapons and plans.
Some involve information in broader areas, such as secure communications, cryptography, intelligence operations and cooperation with third-parties.
- Sissela Bok, Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (New York : Vintage Books, 1989).
- Bruce Schneier, Secrets and Lies (Schneier)
- On Secrecy, by Sir Henry Taylor in The Oxford Book of Essays, John J. Gross, Oxford University Press, 1991 ISBN 0-19-214185-6
- Alasdair Roberts, Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
- Secrecy legal news and research, JURIST
The Federal Information Manual. P. Stephen Gidiere III. American Bar Association (2006)