Spy’s eye: Understanding Confidentiality
A country depends on the awareness of its citizens about national security and the contribution they make towards it

Confidentiality is an instrument of success in the profession of security and vigilance but even in the life of a private individual exercise of discretion about disclosing information -including personal data-is a helpful trait. In the age of knowledge which is a gift of IT revolution, 'information' comes into the public domain as soon as it is produced and an awareness of this itself should compel everybody to pause and think before putting personal information in the cyber space. Going online is like entering a public park- it is entirely in the hands of the person doing that to think of keeping the act from public gaze. It is illogical to insist on putting all your personal information on the internet and then hold the state responsible for ensuring its privacy. Beyond the institutional responsibility of banking, medical and insurance systems for protecting privacy of data, there is a large area where the individual concerned must remain within the bounds of permissible confidentiality in one's own personal interest.

Confidentiality and its mandated form- secrecy- is the substratum for the realm of national security. In two recent cases the leadership ruling India used secrecy to good effect against the nation’s ‘adversaries’- Pakistan outside and the illicit money holders inside- in the matter of surgical strike across LOC and the announcement of demonetisation, respectively. Secrecy in the affairs of the state however, is governed by rules and is maintained for the larger national benefit. Handling a secret can be a matter of duty and would carry no slight of the kind that 'being secretive' entails. In fact members of the national security agencies are aware of the liability they carry for any failure to safeguard secrecy.

Importance of secrecy in the context of security is not difficult to understand. Security is protection against an enemy that planned and operated covertly. Information about this enemy is obtained through means that are kept confidential by the concerned agencies. This information called intelligence is useful so long as the enemy is not alerted that the other side had accessed it. All intelligence therefore, has to be handled and acted upon in secrecy in order to neutralise the threat that it indicates. Knowledge is power and intelligence is secret power that helps to catch the enemy red- handed. Confidentiality is a weapon against an adversary. It has a time frame of utility linked with 'actionability' of the information garnered. Action on intelligence therefore, must be taken without delay if a security failure was to be averted.

An understanding of confidentiality is an integral part of a developed persona. Weak -minded individuals cannot keep information to themselves and cannot keep somebody's confidence. A credulous person likewise, cannot become a leader. The basic requisites of leadership are that the individual at the top had decisiveness, wielded power of authenticity and acted on knowledge. The power of authenticity is rooted in the leader’s belief in a value system, the matching of words with action and the capacity to retain confidence of those who worked for the leader.

Country's secrets about the strengths and vulnerabilities of defence are of great value for the enemy. Places and individuals that house that information therefore, need to be secured. The adversary often works with the help of a subverted insider and that is why today 'insider threat management' has emerged as an extremely important part of counter- espionage effort. Confidentiality or secrecy is part of an organised process of first identifying information that needed to be protected and then following the protocols of giving it a label of 'classification' and restricting access to it to designated individuals. The principle of 'need to know' is founded on this- it should be understood that 'access' is a responsibility not a privilege. The tag of security classification-- top secret to restricted -- defines the nature of protection required for the information, depending upon the damage its unauthorised disclosure would cause to the security of the state. In professional terms over-classification has to be avoided as it puts burden on its management.

Confidentiality or secrecy throws up the need for creating an appropriate information security system. Information has to be protected in physical sphere, in electronic layer and at the personnel level. Physical access controls require biometric identification and authorisation. In electronic layer security is ensured through log in controls, Firewalls and anti-virus tools, authentication mechanism, encryption and intrusion or misuse detection. For the security at personnel level, vetting, enforcement of 'restrictive security' and strong insider threat management are brought into play. A lesson on information security learnt from 9/11 was that there must be an adequate back up of data taken regularly for being held in a secure manner at a safe destination.

A democratic country depends on the awareness of its citizens about national security and the contribution that they could make towards the latter. The state has the Official Secrets Act that defines penalty for spying as well as other laws that strengthen nation’s security. The Right to Information Act exempts the national Intelligence agencies from parting with their information. Also because the responsibility of protecting secrets of the state falls primarily on the functionaries of the government, it is logical from the point of view of governance, that there is a provision in the Constitution itself - Art 311- for dismissal of officer of any rank when 'in the interest of the security of state it was not expedient to hold an inquiry'. In a democracy, however, there has to be a balance between secrecy and transparency.

Some animals have memory and recall but man alone has the power to keep secrets. Secrecy may have a negative connotation in personal and social life but it becomes a prerequisite of work in certain professional situations when it has to be practised for the larger good. To be discreetly silent is a virtue if it is designed not to cause harm, not to serve the evil and not to bring you on the wrong side of law. Secrecy has to be invoked when it becomes necessary for security of the nation, for the competitive advantage of your business enterprise and for taking a professional call as in the work of Vigilance.

At the work place the 'need to know' concept works horizontally- there will be no secrecy between you and those who are immediately above you in the vertical hierarchy. Normally you do not have to work at the back of your boss. And finally confidentiality in its positive connotation has a life span connected with the completion of the essential action for which the information had been held back. Beyond a point secrecy will tend to turn into 'concealment' and acquire a negative hue. Democracies, therefore, have a tradition of making public the archives of confidential information about how the State performed, in recognition of the finer principles of transparency and public good.

 (The writer is a former director, IB)

Columnist: 
DC Pathak