New classification system to tackle challenges of electronic information

Obama to harness IT in push to reduce overclassification of national security data

President Obama has included information technology-focused provisions in his plan to overhaul how the government classifies, maintains and declassifies national security information.

An executive order and supplemental memorandum Obama issued Dec. 29 laid out extensive changes for the government’s classification and declassification processes and included several IT-focused provisions.

Obama said in his memo he expects the order "will produce measurable progress towards greater openness and transparency in the government's classification and declassification programs while protecting the government's legitimate interests." The order came after an administration review of the classification process and public comments about the government’s classification and declassification policies.

The order established the National Declassification Center (NDC) at the National Archives and Records Administration to align people, processes and technologies to further the declassification of records while maintaining national security.

Among its responsibilities, the NDC will coordinate “the development of solutions to declassification challenges posed by electronic records, special media and emerging technologies,” the order said. The center will also coordinate “the linkage and effective utilization of existing agency databases and the use of new technologies to document and make public declassification review decisions and support declassification activities.”

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said the provision is "an important accountability mechanism and it also is intended to harness new technologies to make it work."

Meanwhile, Obama directed the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence to support research to help the NDC in dealing with the cross-agency problems involving declassification.

“I think there’s a perception that the prevailing methods of safeguarding classified information are geared towards paper documents including things such as marking requirements, information storage, as well as ultimate disposal or disposition,” Aftergood said. “All of those procedures were originally designed with paper documents in mind and what they are looking at is how the dominance of electronic records alters the safeguards regime, and how [new technology] can be taken advantage of to expedite declassification."

Obama also ordered the officials to establish uniform procedures to ensure that automated information systems that store classified information use common IT standards, protocols, and interfaces, as well as standardized electronic formats.

William Leary, special adviser to the national security adviser and senior director for records and access management on the White House’s National Security Staff, said in a White House blog post that the order strengthens the standards that agencies must meet to exempt records from automatic declassification at 25 years. The order requires deadlines for records exempted from automatic declassification after 25 years and prohibits classification beyond 75 years, except in limited circumstances.

The order also said no records can remain classified indefinitely and the memo sets a deadline for the declassification of 400 million pages of records previously subject to automatic declassification.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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