For Your Eyes Only....
Recent days have brought us news stories of classified documents in Joe Biden’s garage and elsewhere, and it got me thinking a bit about what we mean by “classified” information.
The concept is a very recent one, in historical terms.
Of course governments, and rulers, have always tried to keep sensitive information close to their chests, never more so than when at war. The history of spies goes back to the Classical world, and and by the early modern period there was plenty of espionage across Europe.
But “classified” documents are an artefact of the bureaucratic age. When government became an industrial and white collar enterprise, the beginnings of the modern civil service in the nineteenth century. In Britain, the first Official Secrets Act was passed into law in 1889.
In various revisions since then it regulated what was secret, and who was to have access to it. Similar laws appeared in other countries, as the legislative state had to address the tensions of democracy, state secrecy, and operating in the modern technological world.
The development of photographic reproduction made it easier for documents to be shared, and the twentieth century brought microcameras and other technology to aid spies in stealing information. Growing bureacracies, necessary to run the modern state, opened questions of who needed access to what, and how such information would or could be used (notions of individual privacy from the state were an issue very much bringing up the rear).
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